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La Jolla Elementary Email Blast Triggers Forum On Racial Profiling

The La Jolla Elementary School in La Jolla, CA is shown in this undated photo.
San Diego Unified School District
The La Jolla Elementary School in La Jolla, CA is shown in this undated photo.
La Jolla Elementary Email Blast Triggers Forum On Racial Profiling
How Vague Suspect Descriptions Criminalize Black Skin GUEST: Starla Lewis, emeritus professor of black studies, San Diego Mesa College

Last week the principal of La Jolla elementary sent out an e-mail warning of a man in Starbucks who looked threatening to one parent. The description given was of quote an African-American male about 30 years old about 6 foot 1 6 foot 2 wearing all black and a hooded sweatshirt unquote concerned community members are responding to the e-mail saying this is an example of a vague suspect description that doesn't help identify a person but puts a large section of the black male population at risk of harassment arrest and even deaths. San Diego State University police recently changed their policy and stopped issuing suspect race descriptions without details today. As events around San Diego recognized the National Day Against Police Brutality A forum will be held at La Jolla Elementary to address the issue. PBS is Jade Heineman spoke with Mesa College and SDM black studies professor Starla Lewis Starla Lewis first thank you so much for joining us today. What is the harm in law enforcement agencies and organizations giving vague suspect descriptions to the public. Well I think the greatest harm is that we live in a society where we haven't truly learned about one another which means that when we see each other we usually respond based on myths lies and stereotypes. And so it creates an unnecessary environment of fear. I cough fear False Evidence Appearing Real and I think it makes people think certain things about one another that aren't rooted in truth. Tell me a bit about the difference between a racial profile and a description. Well I think our description is more detailed in terms of what the individual looks like what they're wearing. Are there any distinguishing marks etc. etc.. I think a profile is based on the belief that certain people are more dangerous are more apt to do something than other people. And so the description is very vague like they're black they're tall they're short they're a man because what happens is we all have been taught certain things about black people. And so once we even just say the word black anything else is going to be connected to a profile. If it's not detail and we have so many examples the woman said a black man stole her car with her kids in it and they found that she had pushed them in the river. You know a black man with a hoodie raped me. Well and then a black man gets out of jail after 20 years because he got him wrong and then she's now lecturing with him trying to get people to understand that's not enough information and that we see not just what we see with our eyes but we see what we've heard with our ears. And so I think that we need a criteria that is more accurate but we also need accuracy in what actually took place because even was looking at. Well that takes me back to Emmett Till he was whistling in a store and the woman said he was with Lee at her when his mother taught him. When you're trying to talk and you're stuttering whistle and then years later after he's been lynched and beaten years later the woman who said he was whistling at her recanted that statement. So these statements are very dangerous and can cost people literally their lives. Can you. On the heels of that you give me a history of racial profiling in this country. Well the history of racial profiling in this country is that we have always associated in our descriptions black men with crime. When black men do amazing things they are rarely identified as even being black. And I think that's one of the problems with it. I think the other piece is the history of racial profiling in this country truly has cost people their lives. I can't help but think of Trayvon Martin and the history of programming has actually instilled fear in black men to walk the streets to go to the mall to go out late at night simply because they are stopped so frequently. And not only that but frisked and searched my grandson is a beautiful tall African-American male and he literally calls me on a regular basis after he's been stopped by the police. Just driving home from work. And so I think we really have to know how critical it is that we as a society learn to see ourselves in one another and not think it's always them and us. And I have to ask too do you think that that factors into a lot of implicit bias in policing. Absolutely our police are people and if they went to school and didn't learn about other people then they're going to have the stereotypes that they learned in society. Police call the black community the war zone they call it the jungle. If I have that attitude about the community when I go into that community I'm going to police very differently. A recent rash of people calling the police on black people for just being black and doing everyday things like an LA JOLLA case of a black man at Starbucks. Can we draw a direct line between vague suspect descriptions and consequences like the ones we're seeing today. Well yes but I also think the consequences are primarily from the fact that we have all gone to school and schools still aren't teaching children about one another. People about one another. We just had a bill trying to be passed in Sacramento to teach ethnic studies K through 12. It did not pass. But my experience my personal experience is that we want to know about each other. My first job was teaching black studies at Palomar College in San Marcos in 1974. I had no black students in my class but my classes were full and that let me know that people want to know about each other and when they do it starts breaking down the barriers that the stereotypes and the misinformation have created. Speaking of learning about each other there's going to be an attempt to do that tonight in La Jolla on Friday. We spoke to Omar passenger a black attorney in San Diego who the La Jolla school district asked to lead that forum tonight. And this was his reaction to the initial e-mail sent out by the principal last week. It's sort of like a gut punch in the first moment because that description was vague in a way that could describe me and my view is if we can have a real conversation and understanding about what's going on that there's progress to be made you know and at La Jolla Elementary there are only a few black families and we can imagine the light of suspicion. They were put under after the principals email went out warning families of a black man in the area. In what ways are groups of people criminalized and endangered by the stereotypes and racial profiles and does it cause more injustice than justice well. I mean we have so much history it's hard to say where do you begin. A black man was lynched in the United States of America every two and a half days for 51 years. We put up a lynching exhibit at Mesa College and the month we put it up which was in 2002 one of our students had a cousin lynched in Wilfahrt Mississippi. So our challenge is really recognizing that our young black men have been so criminalized that daily they walk through the world with what therapists are calling post-traumatic stress hoping that they get home from school hoping to get home from a day hoping to get home from a game and we don't realize how intense that is because we're not learning about each other when we understand that there are young African-American males who don't want to get tall because they feel like they'll be a bigger target. That said when we see the little boy for instance who was 9 years old and the woman accused him of sexually harassing her when his backpack rubbed up against her. And you saw him screaming and holding on to his mother because she's on the phone saying I'm calling the police on him. So it doesn't even start when you're big It starts when you're little. So we have to understand the impact not just on the white community but the impact on all communities of color as well when our children are criminalized and seen as danger and seen as a threat. It affects there are opportunities for employment which also impacts their whole lives. So I think it's really important that this conversation is being heard. What kind of conversations do you think need to happen to fix what's in the American psyche in terms of stereotypes. Well I think we have to do the hard conversation. One of the conversations we run from and we hide behind diversity is the conversation on racism. The conversation on sexism. The conversation on classism and how with that conversation we can start to see how we've all been educated to believe certain things that are not true. I think one of the important things is to learn how to speak our truth even to our friends we have friends of different ethnic backgrounds and we have nice conversations but we often don't have the hard conversations. What I want people to know that I as the grandmother of an African-American male. I want them to understand that when I go out in the world and I see these young men some of them have a paint chip on their shoulder and the paint chip comes from not being seen. And so I kept from losing my mind around all the young black men were being shot by the police and and by civilians who were quote unquote standing their ground. I just started walking up two young black men and I say to them you're beautiful you're brilliant you're powerful you're valuable and your life matters. I've done this for the last few years and they touch their heart and they say thank you. And sometimes they say I really needed to hear that. Today star Lewis thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you have been a pleasure to be here. A forum is being held tonight at 6 p.m. in the library at La Jolla Elementary School. More information about that is on our Web site.

La Jolla Elementary School Forum

When: 6 p.m. Monday October, 22

Where: La Jolla Elementary School Library

1111 Marine St, La Jolla, CA 92037

Community members will gather at La Jolla Elementary School Monday night to talk about the role vague suspect descriptions play in endangering black people in the community.

La Jolla Elementary School Principal Donna Tripi apologized last week for an email to parents that she said unintentionally perpetuated stereotypes about black people.

In September, Tripi warned parents in an email about a man who had allegedly stared at and followed a parent's daughter to a local Starbucks, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Tripi described the man in her email as "an African American male about 30 years old, about 6'1"-6'2", dressed in all black and a hooded sweatshirt," according to the Union-Tribune. The email went on to give parents security tips "to keep your children safe," including calling the police "if you see something that doesn't feel right."

"We're all hoping it was an isolated incident," Tripi wrote in the email, "but reminders are always helpful."

Last week, Tripi sent another email to parents apologizing for her vague description of the man.

"My email was a mistake. While it is critical to keep our school family safe, the way I communicated didn't provide enough specifics to identify the individual, but could easily lead to unnecessary and harmful reactions against other members of our community," Tripi wrote in the email. "African American males continue to face discrimination in our society every day. The thought that I unintentionally contributed to that climate with a vague email is something for which I owe our community an apology."

Andre Branch, president of the San Diego Branch of the NAACP, told The Union-Tribune that he took as much issue with Tripi's second email as the first one.

"This apology is as disturbing as the original email," Branch told the newspaper. "She repeats the description of the man, mentioning his race, but not that of the parents or the children. This repetition reinforces the idea that the parents and their children have something to fear from African- American men."

Out of 535 students enrolled at La Jolla Elementary last fall, five were black, the Union-Tribune reported. The school didn't employ any black teachers last school year and 28 out of 31 teachers were white.

The school held a forum on Monday at 6 p.m. regarding the matter and how to "support all families" at the school.

The community forum was facilitated by Omar Passons, a black attorney and community leader who recently ran unsuccessfully for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Passons said he had a visceral reaction when he first read Tripi's email on social media.

"It is sort of like a gut punch in the first moment because that description. You know it was just ... it was vague in a way that could describe me." Passons said. "And my view is if we can have a real conversation and understanding about what's going on that there's progress to be made."

Passons said he reached out to school district officials after he saw Tripi's first email posted on social media. School leaders asked Passons to moderate the Monday-night forum.