The story of two teenagers of Native American descent who traveled at great personal expense from New Mexico to Colorado State University’s Fort Collins campus for an official prospective student tour, only to be detained by campus police while the tour moved on without them, in national news this weekend as the New York Times reports:
A pair of Native American brothers who had traveled seven hours to tour Colorado State University this week had their visit cut short after a parent on their tour reported them to the campus police.
The parent, a mother, became suspicious after they joined the tour in progress, telling a 911 dispatcher that their behavior and clothing stood out, according to audio from the call.
Body camera footage shows two police officers pulling the brothers aside as they descended a set of stairs. There, the officers briefly questioned the brothers, Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17. The officers soon let the pair rejoin the tour, but by then their guide — apparently unaware that the police had been summoned — had moved on, the university said in a statement.
The teenagers returned to the admissions office and were told that nothing could be done to complete their tour, they said. Frustrated, they embarked on the long trip home to Santa Cruz, N.M.
Traveling on a limited budget with no local accommodations, being separated from the tour group resulted in their long-planned trip to tour CSU being a complete failure. The leader of the tour says she was not aware that the students had been separated from the tour by police, and in her profuse apologies strongly refuted the allegation that the boys had acted threateningly in any way. The school, which has seen other recent examples of on-campus racism, is likewise going into full apologetic crisis comms mode, offering the two a VIP tour and reimbursement of all their expenses.
The person who called 911 on these two prospective students has not been personally identified, described as a white woman in her mid-forties who was the mother of another prospective student on the tour. At several points during her call she expresses some unease about what she’s doing, but not enough to call off her report that they were suspicious. Her overall tone during the discussion does not suggest conscious or malicious racism–just the concern of a middle-aged white American woman whose culturally homogenous personal space has been suddenly violated in the cosmopolitan setting of one of the state’s biggest university campuses.
What happened to these two Native American students touring CSU more correctly falls under the category of what’s known as implicit racism–racism that occurs as a result of subconscious prejudice, and manifests in the form of a conscious fear response. The white woman who called the cops on these Native American kids seems to have avoided racial identifiers in her description of them to the 911 operator, but based on the tour guide’s insistence that the two were not acting abnormally, other motives for her fear of them don’t make sense. Likewise, the responding officers were not overtly racist in their questioning of the boys based on the body camera footage–though a significant portion of the exchange appears to have been muted for unknown reasons–but their aggressive pat-downs and admonishments for what turned out to be mere shyness raise legitimate questions about whether a white kid would have been treated the same way.
In the end, what we have here is a systemic failure, and a cultural failure, for which one individual has responsibility for initiating a racist incident but an entire supporting structure of implicit racism was required for the situation to go as badly as it did. Innumerable steps along the way, from the reflexive fear of the woman who called the police to the cops’ initial treatment of the students to the income disparity that constricted the students’ travel options–created a perfect storm of avoidable problems that makes Colorado once again look in the eyes of the whole nation like a place where people who don’t fit into the white upper-income suburban homogenous cultural bubble are not welcome.
You may or may not feel a personal sense of guilt over what these kids went through. But responsibility for making sure what happened here does not happen again lies with all of us.