Some years ago, while we were getting ready to move out of state, my husband and I held a garage sale. We’d advertised it in our community newspaper and on flyers around the neighborhood and had a huge turnout as a result. Dozens of bargain hunters milled about, asking about this or that item. “Cuanto quiere usted por el sofá?” an older gentleman asked me, pointing to our old green couch. I quoted him a price, adding, “Es un sofá cama.” Hearing our exchange, a white woman turned around and yelled, “Speak English! You’re in America.” “Hey—” I said, but she walked away in a huff, got into her car, and drove off.
I’ve been thinking about that moment, and the fiery anger behind it, as I hear about incident after incident in which white people lash out at people of color in public spaces. There’s the white lawyer who berated the workers at a Manhattan deli for speaking Spanish—insisting that “I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here. The least they can do is speak English”—and then threatened to report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There’s the white student who reported a black student for taking a nap in the common room of their dorm at Yale, saying, “I have every right to call the police—you cannot sleep in that room.” And there’s the white mother who called the police about two Native American students taking part in a campus tour at Colorado State University, telling the dispatcher that “they are not, definitely not, a part of the tour.”
The language in these complaints—“I pay,” “I have every right,” “they are definitely not”—is quite illuminating. It indicates a belief on the part of these white people that they are the custodians of public space and can enlist the police to enforce its boundaries. The offenses committed by people of color are arbitrary and nearly limitless: waiting too long at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, having a barbecue on Lake Merritt in Oakland, playing a leisurely game of golf at a club in Pennsylvania, checking out of an Airbnb in Rialto, California. And once police officers get there, anything can happen, ranging from an arrest on charges of trespassing to the installation of a police perimeter and the arrival of a police helicopter.