Law & the Courts

Cop and Man at Yale

Charles Blow’s column on his son’s encounter with the police omits an important detail.

The Yale Police Department is continuing to investigate what precisely happened between a Yale police officer and New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s son on New Haven’s Ivy League campus last weekend. But we can be reasonably confident that, whatever befell Tahj Blow, it was not what his father reported.

In his Monday Times column, Blow wrote that his son, a third-year ecology and evolutionary-biology major, was returning to his dormitory from a campus library shortly before 6:00 p.m. on Saturday when a campus police officer pulled his gun and ordered Tahj to lie on the ground. After asking his name and where he went to school, the officer asked Tahj to “give him a call the next day.”

A few moments later, the officer reapproached Tahj and requested his student ID, relaying the information to another officer over radio. A female officer then joined the pair, explaining that Tahj was detained because he matched the description of a burglary suspect reported by other students.

“When I spoke to my son, he was shaken up,” Blow wrote. “I, however, was fuming.” The insinuation is clear: “In these moments,” he wrote, “what you’ve done matters less than how you look,” adding that he “had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with police in which our lives hung in the balance.”

On Twitter, Blow was less measured: “This is exactly why I have NO PATIENCE for ppl trying to convince me that the fear these young blk men feel isn’t real #RacialBattleFatigue,” he wrote, also tweeting “#ICantBreathe #BlackLivesMatter.”

By invoking the rallying cries of recent protests over police interactions with black Americans, particularly young black males, Blow implied that his son’s encounter with the Yale police was in the same mold: Because his son was black, the police officer presumed him guilty and behaved more aggressively than he would have toward a white suspect. This cop in New Haven was little different from the cop who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson or the cop who choked Eric Garner on Staten Island.

Except that, as Yale president Peter Salovey noted in a campus-wide e-mail sent out on Monday, the officer was, in fact, black. Blow left that detail out of his account.

If Blow means to suggest that the cop was racist because he was white, his failure to include that detail admits of only two possible explanations, neither of which works to his credit: Either he intentionally omitted a crucial detail from his account in order to bolster a preferred narrative, or he failed to conduct due diligence as a journalist, writing an op-ed based on presumptions rather than facts. (If the latter, the Times’ editorial staff is also to blame.) Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that, before sitting down to write 900 words about his son’s face-to-face encounter with police racism on an Ivy League campus, Blow never asked his son about the race of the police officer. But if that is what happened, then Blow’s journalistic scruples are few, since he would then be guilty of writing the story that he wanted to have happen, rather than the one that did.

But in past columns, too, Blow has omitted the race of officers involved in fatal encounters with black men, so it may be that the racism he sees in his son’s run-in with police is not simple racial antagonism, but the ambient racism he described in a December column: “Racism doesn’t require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise. It doesn’t even require more than one race.” Racism, as he wrote in August, is confirmed by nothing more than “the threat response [a black man’s] very being elicits.”

Yet a racism that is “interpersonal and structural . . . current and historical . . . explicit and implicit . . . articulated and silent,” that “mov[es] in and out of consideration with little or no notice, without leaving a trace, even without our own awareness,” is conveniently elastic. Under that definition, Charles Blow can espy racism anywhere — such as in his son’s incident, despite the fact that there is no evidence that it was race-driven.

As even Blow allows, “If indeed my son matched the description of a suspect, I would have had no problem with him being questioned appropriately. . . . The stop is not the problem; the method of the stop is the problem.” And if Tahj’s account is accurate, Blow has reasonable questions: “Why was a gun drawn first? Why was he not immediately told why he was being detained? Why not ask for ID first?” The university has confirmed that the officer’s gun was drawn during the stop, and is investigating (though Salovey says that Blow’s claim that his son was “accosted” is “deeply inaccurate”).

Still, one could ask these questions without insinuating that they were in any way a product of racism. But Blow is so eager to legitimize the concept of racism, to discover a catch-all explanation for superficially similar episodes, that he has emptied the word of all meaningful content. Racism is whatever he wants it to mean.

That hardly serves the purposes of lux et veritas.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.


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