Guest Column by Jasmine Salters | The usual suspects: 'black men' in 'hooded sweatshirts'

· December 9, 2013, 10:30 pm   ·  Updated December 9, 2013, 11:01 pm

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Around 7:45 on Monday morning, I received a UPennAlert that read: “Robbery with weapon at COSI (140 S 36TH), police on scene, use caution, avoid area.” According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the suspects were “a black male, about 5-foot-10, with a knit cap and blue clothing” and “a black male, slim, with a gray hooded sweatshirt.”

I immediately thought back to Saturday morning, when I received a similar alert: “Robbery with weapon at 40th & Locust St, police on scene, use caution, avoid area.” I clicked the accompanying link for details, which read: “4:14am: Robbery point of gun 40th and Locust, police responding. Description is total of 3 males: 2 black males appoximately in their 20’s wearing dark hooded sweatshirts…”

While many of the students who consulted Public Safety or the DP presumably thought, “of course, black men in hoodies again” (or something more racist — this is Penn, after all), I could not help but think: how convenient. How convenient of Penn to choose these incidents to broadcast rather than the countless crimes which regularly occur on campus — according to the University of Pennsylvania Almanac Crime Statistics Index, 9 rapes/sex offenses, 17 assaults, 8 aggravated assaults, 53 thefts and 24 robberies were reported on or nearby campus between Oct. 21 and Nov. 24, 2013, none of which were broadcasted by UPennAlert.

Each time I receive an alert from Penn Public Safety informing me of nearby danger, I find myself more fearful of Penn than the alleged perils our institution is warning us of. I cannot help but ask myself: Why is it that each alert seems to be between 40th and 42nd streets and Chestnut and Pine? Why are almost all perpetrators either “dark complexion” or “black” though white-on-white crime is far more common than black-on-white?

According to the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System site, the current system “enables the University to quickly notify [Penn faculty, staff and students] of critical information during a major emergency.” Are the on-campus rapes, assaults and robberies of Penn students, faculty and staff not “critical information?” Are crimes not “critical information” when committed by athletes, frat boys and other tuition-paying students?

One of the first lessons you are usually taught either during New Student Orientation (NSO) or before even stepping foot on campus is: “Don’t go north of Market or west of 40th Street.” I’ve heard these words since my freshman year at Penn in 2006, and now as a graduate student, I still on occasion get undergraduates asking me if this is an unofficial rule to which they should abide.

It is not. Rather, much like the UPennAlerts, these words function as figurative partitions, used to separate fictitious safety from danger, Penn from greater West Philadelphia, “the haves” from “the have-nots.” It reinforces dominant ideological notions of black male criminality and students’ racialized fears of crime and victimization while enabling them to ignore their own illicit behaviors. Such strategic rhetoric helps to sustain the “Penn bubble” that the majority of us remain within, the bubble that has fermented as a result of penntrification — the pushing further West of black Philadelphians (unless they are on campus to serve our food, sweep our floors or staff our front desks), the biased alerts, the word-of-mouth propaganda, the 500 men in yellow jackets armed with walkie-talkies to escort you home. The bubble that mythically protects you from the dangers of black men in dark hooded sweatshirts.

While you may believe it to be a more enjoyable college experience when you pretend that your campus is a safe, secure environment, which your expensive tuition guarantees, on-campus crime is indeed a reality and your money is more so paying for the technologies that enable your illusions rather than your safety.

I write these words not to burst your Penn bubble (okay, I did) or to discount crimes committed. Rather, I want us all to hold Penn more accountable for honestly and effectively preventing and responding to all crimes committed both inside and outside the ivory tower. If nothing else, perhaps the next time you get a UPennAlert, you’ll at least ask yourself why the crime occurred, once again, at either 40th and Locust or 40th and Spruce, and why the perpetrator was, once again, a dark male in a hooded sweatshirt.

Jasmine Salters is a black feminist writer and doctoral candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication.

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