The last couple of months have put racism in clear focus: Ahmaud Arbury’s and George Floyd’s deaths and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have clarified that racism is still a prevalent injustice within the United States. This movement has sparked a profound narrative about the means necessary to combat racism, prompting many companies and lawmakers to tailor their policies to this growing demand for change. One such lawmaker is Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who introduced the CAREN Act (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) into the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on July 8. A spin on the name “Karen,” a pejorative term used to describe a middle-aged woman with overbearing entitlement, this law seeks to criminalize fabricated police calls motivated by racial prejudices.
Several racially biased police calls have transpired over the last couple of years, but the incident involving a white woman named Amy Cooper and black birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) stands out from the rest. On May 25, Amy was walking her dog in Central Park when Christian asked Amy to leash her dog to comply with the park’s rules, ensuing a heated argument that led to Amy calling the police. Amy’s call exposes her racism and blatant sense of entitlement: “There is a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog. Please send the cops immediately!” The video of this incident quickly went viral on social media. It generated massive outrage against Amy Cooper for racially profiling a black man and exaggerating the event to make it seem like she was in physical danger.
Years of police brutality and George Floyd’s death have underscored the fact that the relationship between African Americans and the police is inherently problematic – many police racially profile individuals to assess their level of threat. Consequently, when someone makes a baseless 911 call in a racially motivated encounter, they are pitting a black person against the police and facilitating a potentially violent confrontation. If the caller exaggerates the incident, as Amy Cooper had done, the police may act instinctively against the accused when arriving at the scene of the “crime” without assessing the realities of the incident. On top of endangering a black person’s safety, when the police unwittingly get involved in a racially driven encounter, they can be viewed under a negative light and seen as perpetrators in the injustice. Such an outcome may strain a community’s perception of the police and erode trust in law enforcement – jumpstarting an endless cycle of enmity and fear that can debilitate a community, especially those of color.
I acknowledge that the creators of the CAREN Act had benevolent and righteous intentions: they saw that racially biased 911 calls are a widespread problem and designed a bill to address it. In the broad scheme of today’s political climate, the CAREN Act is a response to the national narrative about racial inequality that seeks to protect black Americans from discrimination and potentially dangerous police encounters – and I commend the lawmakers for that. But I believe this is a step in the wrong direction. If we, as a nation, are marching towards a vision of racial equality where black Americans have equal opportunities as white Americans, the CAREN Act will hamper that movement.
Racially motivated 911 calls are a widespread and pressing problem, but there are already laws in place criminalizing fabricated or non-emergency calls; Amy Cooper already faces charges due to the incident. Although the element of racism certainly drove her to complete the call, in any case, that call was illegal. However, the CAREN Act will add a layer of ambiguous complexity to the distinction between a non-emergency and emergency. Under this law, people in real danger will have to consider the perpetrator’s race before deciding to make the call – and may not even make that call at all. This law will inevitably discourage people from reporting suspicious behavior, which will increase the likelihood of criminal activity. Worst of all, the CAREN Act will amplify racial divides in a community by making race an integral part of police interactions, thereby deteriorating racial cohesion when our nation so desperately demands it. By holding different racial groups to different standards during police interactions, the law will blur straightforward police responses and deepen racial crevices in communities. How will we cure our country when laws such as the CAREN Act divide the country with potential lawsuits and criminal charges while failing to target the root causes of racism?
Progress starts with unity. No matter how many laws we pass decriminalizing racism in any general or specific sense, we will not achieve real growth until we address the causes of racism and not solely the visible symptoms. The CAREN Act is an attempt to build a skyscraper on quicksand: it might curtail the occurrence of racially charged 911 calls, but it will ultimately fail to address the roots of racism and may even backtrack on our present progress. The only way we will curb racism is by breaking down racial barriers so that different ethnic groups can begin to see each other eye to eye. However, the CAREN Act will do the opposite: it will widen the rift between white and black people by sowing animosity and unnecessary strife.
Instead of passing divisive laws such as the CAREN act, we must invest our resources into a more productive manner: we should educate our youth about the pervasive effects of racism and repair our police departments to curb police brutality. As the BLM movement turns the gears of change and a more open-minded generation replaces the old, we are slowly advancing towards a more tolerant society – yet the CAREN Act would barricade this growth.