On Oct. 24, University of North Texas professor Dorothy Bland was walking around her affluent Dallas suburb when she was stopped by police. Bland, who is African American, had been exercising in the street. The cops, who are both white, asked her to walk in the opposite direction so she could see traffic or, even better, to use the sidewalk. Roughly three minutes later, she was on her way.
The short and seemingly simple interaction has proved anything but, however.
Several days later, Bland, who is the dean of UNT’s journalism school, penned an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News claiming that she had been racially profiled.
“Walking while black is a crime in many jurisdictions,” she wrote. “May God have mercy on our nation.”
Corinth Police responded by releasing the officers’ dashcam video of the interaction and claiming Bland had turned a “cordial” stop into a “racial issue.”
“If we didn’t have the video, these officers would have serious allegations against them,” police chief Debra Walthall told Fox News. “Every white officer that stops an African American does not constitute racial profiling.”
Now it is Bland, not the cops, who is facing pressure as nearly 2,500 people have signed a petition urging UNT to fire her.
Although disciplinary action against either the professor or police appears unlikely, the viral video is still generating a heated debate about law enforcement and race relations in this country.
Like Bland, many Americans see the stop as a subtle but significant instance of racial prejudice by police.
“If officers were concerned only about Bland’s safety and her impeding traffic, why did they ask her for her ID? Why did they need her birthdate? Why did they radio in a ‘name check’?” wrote Dallas Morning News writer Leona Allen, who is African American.
“We’re not fools,” Allen added. “Sure looks like they’re calling to check to see if she had outstanding warrants.”
Many others were equally angry – but with Bland.
“As a person of color, this upsets me,” said former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who is also African-American. “Particularly against what happened in South Carolina. Particularly as this country is wrestling with very real concerns regarding the police treatment of African American youth.”
“She took advantage of a very innocent and thoughtful police response – walk on the right side of the street – she’s just looking for her Skip Gates moment,” Kirk told the Morning News, referring to the 2009 arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, which led to accusations of racism against the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer. “There’s a real danger here.”
On YouTube, meanwhile, a copy of the video quickly gathered hundreds of comments, many of them containing expletives and racial epithets.
“It’s a Rorschach test,” wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd of the video. “The way we interpret it probably says a great deal about our beliefs, expectations and experiences in a nation that remains woefully divided along racial lines.”
Were it not for America’s simmering debate over race and policing, the incident could be chalked up as an example of the so-called Rashomon effect. The phenomenon, in which different people draw contradictory interpretations of a single event, draws its name from the eponymous 1950 classic film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
What is undisputed is that Dorothy Bland was walking in the street near her Corinth home on the morning of Oct. 24, when she was stopped by two white police officers.
“I was dressed in a gray hooded ‘Boston’ sweatshirt, black leggings, white socks, plus black-and-white Nike running shoes,” Bland’s recounting began. “Like most African-Americans, I am familiar with the phrase ‘driving while black,’ but was I really being stopped for walking on the street in my own neighborhood?”
Knowing that the police officers are typically armed with guns and are a lot bigger than my 5 feet, 4 inches, I had no interest in my life’s story playing out like Trayvon Martin’s death. I stopped and asked the two officers if there was a problem; I don’t remember getting a decent answer before one of the officers asked me where I lived and for identification.
Bland was clearly angered by the encounter. She compared the stop to other instances in which African-Americans have died at police officers’ hands.
“Although I am not related to Sandra Bland,” who died in a Texas jail after a traffic stop, “I thought about her, Freddie Gray and the dozens of others who have died while in police custody,” the professor wrote. “For safety’s sake, I posted the photo of the officers on Facebook, and within hours, more than 100 Facebook friends spread the news from New York to California.”
She concluded her op-ed by saying that she refused “to let this incident ruin my life” and recounting how a white woman gave her roses shortly after the police stop.
But Bland’s account is also largely accurate.
When compared to the video, the only detail she appears to get wrong is her claim that cops “interrupted” her walk with “flashing lights and sirens.” (Walthall, the police chief, said her officers “activated their emergency lights [but] no siren was ever sounded.”)
Her other recollections line up with what’s recorded in the video, from her own comments about being “a taxpayer who pays a lot of taxes” to the cop’s quote about how his dog doesn’t like to walk in the rain, either.
What is clearly up for debate, however, is her interpretation of the events.
In a rebuttal to Bland’s op-ed, chief Walthall said her officers had done nothing wrong.
“The interaction between Ms. Bland and the officers was very cordial and brief,” she wrote. Rather than racial profiling, the officers had seen Bland earlier but not stopped her because “she was not in the street and impeding traffic.” It was only later, when a truck driver had gestured to cops after swerving around her, that the cops questioned her, Walthall said.
“I am surprised by her comments as this was not a confrontational encounter but a display of professionalism and genuine concern for her safety,” the chief wrote.
Asking for ID “is part of the standard procedure,” Walthall told Fox News. “There’s a legitimate purpose for doing so. She did commit a misdemeanor. I want our officers checking ID’s on every person they encounter in situations such as this.”
“Please review the video and I’m sure you will agree the officers’ intent was simply to keep her safe,” Walthall concluded her own op-ed. “Ms. Bland never contacted the police department to voice her concerns regarding this encounter and has not returned my phone message left at the number provided by the mayor. The citizens of Corinth as a whole are a highly educated population, and it is disappointing that one of our residents would attempt to make this a racial issue when clearly it is not.”
Others also accused Bland of twisting a routine stop into an argument on race.
“Actually, yes it is racism . . . on her part though,” one commenter wrote on YouTube. “She assumes that just because two white police officers stopped her that they were doing it because she was black.”
“I’m just disgusted when I see something like this,” wrote another. “I’m a black man in his 40’s and when I see this woman, who’s a professor none the less, perpetuating the cycle of racism, it makes me sad.”
At the same time, however, many studies have shown that African-Americans are subjected to scrutiny that whites are not. Several studies have shown that stop-and-frisk, the police strategy of conducting supposedly random searches of people, for instance, is actually applied unevenly against minorities. “Driving while black” has become shorthand for allegations of racial profiling against African-American drivers, allegations supported by a recent New York Times investigation that found police in four states stopped black drivers more often, but found contraband less frequently than with white drivers.
Last week, The Washington Post’s Fredrick Kunkle reported that “walking while black” was also worse than for whites.
“Motorists are less likely to stop for an African-American pedestrian in a crosswalk,” Kunkle wrote, citing a recent study. “A black pedestrian’s wait time at the curb was about 32 percent longer than a white person’s. Black pedestrians were about twice as likely as white pedestrians to be passed by multiple vehicles.”
It’s this type of subtle bias that Bland’s supporters argue could have driven white cops to stop her when she wasn’t a threat.
Ironically, it is Bland, who cops told to use the sidewalk for her safety, who is now at risk. An online petition demanding UNT sack her had racked up almost 2,500 signatures as of Wednesday morning, although there is no sign that the university is considering doing so.
In statement posted on Facebook Tuesday evening, the university said “Bland’s interactions with the Corinth Police and her communications about her perceived experience are her private business,” although the statement also criticized Bland’s decision to mention her faculty position in her op-ed.
In an email Thursday morning to UNT colleagues, Bland acknowledged the controversy over her claim of racial profiling.
“There is quite a bit of feedback on social media,” she wrote, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle. “My column simply reflects my perspective and experience.”