Opinion: Yes, it’s racist when a Black real estate agent and his clients get handcuffed for touring a home
"A neighbor saw him there and called the police. Or, more precisely: A neighbor saw a Black man in a black car and drew a mistaken conclusion. A number of days earlier, a different Black man in a different black car had been arrested at the same house for breaking into the empty dwelling.
The neighbor believed the same Black man was back and told the 911 operator exactly that. She expressed no doubt that it was the same person: “a young Black man that was squatting,” she is heard to say on the recorded call. “He’s back there again.” The car — which she describes as “a black Mercedes” — is “sitting out front.”
In the short time it took the police to arrive, Brown’s clients pulled up and the trio went inside. When the son looked through a window, he saw that multiple officers of the Wyoming Police Department were surrounding the house with their guns drawn.
As a veteran, Roy Thorne understood immediately that something was not only wrong but also very dangerous. Covering the exits with guns at the ready, the police were clearly prepared for trouble and might react quickly to any sudden movement. Carefully, with his hands up and his body between the police and his son, Thorne walked through the front door, followed by the others.
The three were immediately handcuffed — or, as the police are heard to say on their radios, the “targets” were taken into “custody.” In later interviews, Brown and the Thornes spoke of mixed feelings of humiliation, fear, betrayal, anger and confusion. How could three citizens looking at a house on a quiet Sunday afternoon wind up surrounded by guns and slapped into manacles?
That something was very wrong also dawned on the police, who began to notice details: the “For Sale” sign in the yard; the undamaged lockbox that Brown had opened with an app to get a key for the front door; Brown’s black Hyundai Genesis and Thorne’s black Chevrolet Malibu — no Mercedes after all. Brown encouraged them to search his wallet for his business card, which showed he had a real estate license. Eventually, the cuffs came off, and at least one officer apologized for the mix-up, wishing the trio a better day as the fiasco concluded.
Here, the facts end and the interpretation begins.
City authorities, having examined reports and recordings, maintain that everything was done by the book and race played no part in the incident. Brown and the Thornes are unconvinced. Thus the event becomes a case study in the gulf of perceptions that complicates discussions of racism in our society.
It’s not racist to mistake one car for another, or to imagine that a house broken into on July 24 might be targeted again eight days later. It’s not racist for police to respond to a suspected crime in progress with caution and to follow the procedures they learned in training.
Conceding all of those points, it remains preposterous to say that this incident had nothing to do with race — race multiplied by gender. Any number of White real estate agents in actual black Mercedes sedans could have pulled up to that house, opened that lockbox and gone inside, without a peep to 911. If the neighbors even noticed, they would have thought: house for sale, Sunday afternoon, a buyer must be interested.
What is clear from the recordings is that no one — not the caller, not the dispatcher, not the police — seriously considered the possibility that Brown was a real estate agent, even though Sunday afternoon is prime time for house-shopping but less so for breaking and entering. A series of assumptions were made, starting with the assumption that this Black man in a Hyundai must perforce be some other Black man in a Mercedes — perhaps you’ve heard the classically racist saying, “They all look alike to me"?
When the police saw Black men in the house they assumed a crime was in progress, and only concrete proof made them change their minds.
Something is very wrong when three citizens going peacefully about their business are suddenly surrounded by guns, taken into custody and forced to prove their innocence. And the worst part of the video is this: The three don’t seem astonished.