Commentary -

Could fines stop white people from calling the police on folk ‘being black’ in public? Economic penalties have worked before in the fight against racism

Commentary -

Could fines stop white people from calling the police on folk ‘being black’ in public? Economic penalties have worked before in the fight against racism

Kenzie Smith was setting up a grill with a friend at a lakeside park in Oakland, California. Smith was participating in the celebrated art of barbecuing, something he and his family had enjoyed at the park for years. But another typical American drama unfolded when Jennifer Schulte, a white woman, called the police on Smith, who is black. The reported offense was using charcoal in an undesignated area of the park.

The drama did not end violently, as have so many other altercations between racist whites and innocent black men and women. The police made no arrests, and they did not fine Smith. Yet the incident underscores the hard truth that many whites are incapable of understanding racism and their complicity in it.

Schulte has been shamed, as have the multitude of other whites who called the police on other African-Americans in a string of “while black” altercations at Starbucks, a Waffle House, golf courses and countless other spaces across the nation. We say their names. We share and repost hilarious memes that mercilessly (yet rightfully) mock whites who call the police to report people “being black” in public spaces. Yet this is not enough. Public shaming raises awareness and helps some cope, but it does not exact the cost that eradicating racism requires.

Yet, Schulte needs to be held accountable. The few vocal calls for white accountability through penalties are not misguided. By targeting the bottom line, policies can moderate racist behavior. If whites have to pay for their ignorance, they are likely to think twice. If whites can finally see that racism negatively affects them and that racism is bad for business, or personal finances, the beloved community may not be achieved. But it puts us on the path toward a masterful feat: millions of woke whites.

Monetary penalties have effectively curbed overtly racist actions before. In cities across the American South, where racism and segregation were most visibly entrenched, black protest pressured many white businesses to stop the practice of segregation before the law changed.

Even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bastions of segregation that sought to avoid the tarnished images of Jackson, Mississippi, or Birmingham, Alabama, understood that overt racism was bad for business and development.

In the cradle of the Confederacy, Mayor Lester Bates of Columbia, South Carolina, ushered in the desegregation of public spaces and businesses in August 1963, nearly one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. After a crippling economic boycott, Bates called together a coalition of moderate whites and civil rights leaders. Following the example of Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, who carefully built on the image of Atlanta as “a city too busy to hate,” Bates encouraged white business owners and city leaders to allow patrons of color to shop, dine and enter public spaces without the overt discrimination that defined Jim Crow.

But economic penalty was and remains far from perfect. It does not change the hearts and minds of the most recalcitrant racist whites.

Take, for instance, Maurice Bessinger, former owner of the infamous Columbia barbecue establishment Piggy Park. Bessinger was an avowed segregationist and Confederate flag and souvenir aficionado long after the city desegregated. Bessinger’s bottles of barbecue sauce, which were nationally distributed, featured the Confederate flag. The flag was draped over restaurant foyers. Racist epithets and Confederate literature could be found on tables, tacked to the wall and repeated by staff. As calls for the removal of the Stars and Bars resounded, Bessinger’s boisterous support for the former Confederacy only increased.

Business suffered as a result. The family estimates the business lost more than $20 million throughout the 1980s and 1990s as people refused to purchase Bessinger goods. The backlash pushed Bessinger’s sons to remove the symbolic representation of the past once their father retired. Most of the Bessinger sons worked to distance themselves from their controversial father, removing all Confederate memorabilia from their stores and products.

Politicizing where you eat and what you buy makes an impact. But codifying financial penalties can place even more pressure on whites today.

Politicizing where you eat and what you buy makes an impact. But codifying financial penalties can place even more pressure on whites today.

Since it is illegal to file false police reports and occupy law enforcement and professional first responders for superfluous, racist purposes, there is a legal need for local governments to step in too.

Still, financial penalties and economic protest do not address the more systemic issues and certainly do not fulfill calls for reparations. The remnants of segregation and the Confederacy remain. The grips of slavery still pervade. Racism is still a reality. It’s in our barbecue.

However, racist whites need to be held accountable, and we know that monetary penalties can curb racist behavior.

The penalty for filing false claims is a good place to start. Like reporting fallacious and untruthful information to the police, calling law enforcement and first responders for trivial matters negatively affects the public good in myriad ways. A long track record of police brutality also suggests calling the police on racist premises jeopardizes black lives.

Penalties vary by state, from $500 fines and up to 30 days in jail in South Carolina to $1,000 fines and up to one year in jail in New York. Given our history, this seems to be a minor price for racist individuals to pay to help eradicate individual and institutional racism.

While financial penalties are far from perfect, they are an effective pre-emptive measure. The recent incident in Oakland teaches us that racism continues to run rampant and many whites are largely clueless about how it operates. But it also shows us that when whites are confronted with a penalty, we have the ability to think twice. Fining Jennifer Schulte and other offenders is an option worth considering.


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