Followers of Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” may have felt a twinge of deja vu watching the recent episode “The Lawn Chair.” Our heroine, Olivia Pope, is hired to investigate the death of Brandon Parker at the hands of a white police officer, who claims that the black teen charged at him with a knife.
I applaud Rhimes for using this allegory for the controversial events that have recently taken place in New York City, Ferguson and various other parts of the US. The episode provided a new angle in attempt to understand the complicated relationships that exist between the police and the public, between black and white.
Soon after the episode begins, the father of the deceased teen pithily mentions that “even though he wasn’t going to college, I put a University of Maryland sticker on my truck, so if he ever got pulled over, the cops wouldn’t think he was just a thug.”
It’s unfortunate that I needed a TV episode to get a firsthand glimpse of the spectrum of harassment that certain minority groups have to face. Of course, I had always known that racial profiling existed, but the episode unveiled to me the personal aspect of racial profiling – something more than the numbers. As a biracial Asian and white person, I’ve never had to worry about getting detained by the police and as such I – quite selfishly, in retrospect – never gave the realities of racial profiling much thought. Soon, however, I began to see exactly how close to home these television plots cold hit.
In a real life parallel, my friend Michael Codrington ’18 was stopped and frisked by a police officer over Spring Break. Describing the incident, he says: “I was walking to the subway so that I could grab the [Andover] New York Bus. Cops were the last thing on my mind. And I had not gone more than a block before a police cruiser sped up to catch me. I wasn’t expecting a casual ‘Where are you going?’: I was expecting a gun in my back. I was concerned for my wellbeing not just because he was a cop but because he was a white cop who saw black teenagers. After our tense confrontation, the cruiser slowly passed by a small group of white kids, but he had only stopped me.”
Racial profiling is a problem that is impossible to ignore. Early this month, a Department of Justice report charged the Ferguson police department with a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations” against African-Americans, including unjustified vehicle searches of black drivers and even releasing dogs on black residents.
I’ve ultimately come to realize that racial tension and racial profiling is in part caused by a lack of respect and a lack of understanding. While the “Scandal” episode may be fiction, the experience of Brandon Parker, the murdered teen, is very close to what has become a fact of life for black and brown youth. Police officers – consciously or not – frequently and unjustly infringe on the rights of blacks as a direct result of ingrained prejudices. My friend Michael had to show the policeman his Andover ID before the officer believed that he was just trying to catch a subway back to school. We must begin to see more than the statistics, to attach faces to a seemingly distant problem and to comprehend the true horrors of racial discrimination and profiling – as we have seen in Ferguson, ignorance can be deadly.
One way to evoke this crucial empathy and awareness is through more transparent dialogue. In his article “More Than Just Small Talk” published in the March 27 issue of The Phillipian, Noble Ohakam writes, “In the wake of recent racial tension, we need discussion more than ever.” That said, discussing sensitive matters is easier said than done. Very few people, including myself, want to share their opinion on racial disputes for fear of upsetting other people by saying the wrong thing. But ultimately, we must learn how to talk about race correctly and effectively through engaging in Personal and Community Education class, attending social activist clubs or simply looking online.
Another potential method is using our own artistry to spread awareness – through creating and endorsing captivating television, movies and other media that bring reality straight to our computer screens and living room couches. Through “The Lawn Chair,” Shonda Rhimes took her audience, if not to Ferguson, to a place very much like it, introducing us to complex characters that helped piece together the recent tumultuous events. Thus, I feel as if I should thank Rhimes: not just for my own enlightenment, but also for the enlightenment of hundreds of thousands more viewers. In us, her contribution has potentially inspired a new wave of racial equality advocates, and for that I am grateful.