Crime alerts foster feelings of hostility toward African American students

By Lesley Gwam

Lesley Gwam

Like most college students, I admit to spending an ample amount of my time (spare time, as well as time that should be spent doing homework) on social networking sites. As a result, I am now well versed in Twitter vernacular, particularly that used by students at the University of Illinois. Therefore, when I came across a tweet from one of my followers that read “Another crime alert. #brothaslostagain,” I knew that the hash tag was an added effect to emphasize the fact that the suspect in the latest incident of campus crime was an African American male, much to the dismay—but not surprise—of many black students.

Notifications concerning the recent string of incidents of campus crime, which have ranged from aggravated robbery to sexual abuse, have filled a significant portion of my university e-mail account inbox. Following the narrative of the crime is a description of the suspect(s), and often the only significant identifier of the suspect(s) is race. For example, the suspect in an aggravated robbery from Oct. 3 is described as “20 to 22-year-old black male, approximately 5 foot 10 inches tall, weighing approximately 160 pounds, wearing a dark hooded athletic jacket that was pulled up over his head.”

Add a few inches, and the University Police Department has successfully described two of my exes, and over half of the Black Greek Council. The ambiguity of these descriptions has managed to become a comical matter amongst students here; I personally observed two “crime alert” costumes on Halloween, and the phrase itself has become a slang term on campus. It is not rare to hear someone say, “Hurry up and get home, you don’t want to be the next crime alert,” or to hear someone refer to a seemingly menacing person as “crime alert-ish.”

While these jokes are funny on the surface, they are part of a much larger problem. Although members of the campus community receive a plethora of e-mails detailing the crimes that have occurred, rarely do we receive e-mails that detail the progress of the police investigations. Thus far, these crime alerts have failed to result in a substantial decrease in campus crime. They have, however, succeeded in further polarizing an already “segregated” campus.

In September 2006, WILL-TV aired a program titled “Legally Integrated, but Socially Segregated: Life on Campus for Students at UIUC.” Moderated by then-graduate student, Coleman Evans, the program addressed the construction of social groups among racial groups and encouraged students to discuss the positive and negative aspects of assimilation.

The program was a reaction to the “Tacos and Tequilas” party held earlier that year by members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, where attendees imitated “Mexicans,” with some partygoers dressing up as pregnant women and farm workers.

These offensive images (which also began as a joke) sparked controversy across campus, resulting in initiatives to promote campus diversity.

While it is difficult to quantitatively measure the success of such programs, it is impossible to say that the overwhelming majority of social events on this campus are not celebrated along racial lines. While there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to socialize with members of the same race, the differing police and media treatment of these events do little to foster a racially mixed campus environment.

At the start of each school year, fraternities within the Interfraternity Council host a string of parties in an attempt to recruit new members. Many of these gatherings are loud and contain ample underage drinking, yet the police presence at these events is hardly ever excessive, nor is the media coverage of the tumultuous end to these parties.

This past September, however, the historically black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, celebrated its return to campus after a five-year absence by hosting a party at the Highdive night club. Not only did Champaign police prematurely end the party after a minor quarrel between two patrons, they also used pepper spray throughout the venue and brought in the K-9 units as well. As if this display of excessive force were not enough, both the Daily Illini and The News-Gazette published reports of the fight. The latter publication even stated, “When police arrived, they saw approximately 100 people on the dance floor preparing to fight,” despite the fact that only three individuals were actually arrested.

Many of my black male friends on campus have shared with me that one of the hardest things they’ve had to experience as students here is to convince others that they really are here to learn, not rob or assault anyone. The crime alerts and the generic profiles included in them do not help to narrow down the suspect pool; they just provide individuals with more of a reason to cross the street at the sight of a black man.