Should Black Professors Hide Their Credentials from the Police?

by Stacey Patton Warning: Black people who are stopped by the police might want to keep their “I’...

by Stacey Patton

Warning: Black people who are stopped by the police might want to keep their “I’m a faculty member at such-and-such university” card hidden rather than flaunting it in hope of being released or at least not brutalized.

Having a Ph.D., a dynamic teaching portfolio, published articles and books, and even tenure won’t necessarily save you from being profiled or roughed up by either municipal or university cops during a street confrontation.

In fact, many in the academic community are saying it might make things worse.

“Announcing that you're a professor, especially in the Obama era, often triggers the ire of white police officers. It's almost like adding the proverbial ‘uppity negro’ to an intersectional analysis,” said Shannon King, a history professor at The College of Wooster.

This sentiment gained traction over the weekend with a viral video of a black female professor being clotheslined and body slammed to the ground by a white campus policeman during a May 20 arrest for jaywalking.

According to police reports, Officer Stewart Ferrin stopped Ersula Ore, an English professor who specializes in cultural studies and communications, as she attempted to cross a campus street with other individuals to avoid a construction site.

The dashcam video begins with the officer threatening to slam Ore onto the police car because she doesn’t put her arms behind her.

Clad in a black dress, Ore can be heard asking, “Do you see what I’m wearing?”

“I don’t care what you’re wearing,” the officer responded.

She told the campus cop that she is a professor at the university.

Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”

Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over…”

The officer lost his patience and tried to handcuff Ore as she screamed, “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me!”

After being slammed to the ground, Ore stood back up, her dress was hiked-up leaving her exposed.  When the officer reached for her genital area, she kicked him. Though she was acting in self-defense, according to her attorney Alane Roby, Ore now faces felony charges for resisting arrest, aggravated assault on a police officer, refusal to show her ID and for obstructing a thoroughfare. This could translate to up to three years in prison and a $150,000 fine, her attorney said in a phone interview late Sunday night.

The university first issued the following statement in support of the officer:

“ASU authorities have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved. Should such evidence be discovered, an additional, thorough inquiry will be conducted and appropriate actions taken.”

On Monday evening the university changed its tune when the provost Robert Page issued a statement saying that faculty and administrators were shocked and disappointed by the video. “We ended up with an outcome no one wanted and should never have happened,” Page said.

His statement continued, “Professor Ore is a valued faculty member at ASU. She is an outstanding teacher and mentor. The university remains supportive of her. The entire matter is being reviewed and a further statement from ASU is forthcoming. In the meantime, I want to assure everyone that the behavior displayed in this incident does not reflect in any way the values and principles by which ASU operates. We are privileged to be part of an academic community where diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and respect are central to all we are and do.”

“A Man Was Touching Me”

As of Sunday night Ore, who is on the tenure track at ASU, was still shaken up by the incident.
“I’m scared. I’m nervous. I’m uncomfortable to walk at night,” Ore told me in a phone interview. “The university’s position makes me anxious about my future there. I’m fearful for my job and my potential to get another job. I don’t know how academe is going to view someone who hasn’t been silent.”

When Ferrin stopped her, she initially thought he was trying to protect her. “It was late. I’m a woman. The light rail is across the street and there have been reports of people jumping off the train and robbing people,” she said.

Ore said she was confused when the officer aggressively cut off her path and asked her if she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a street. She said a white woman and a few other witnesses had also crossed the street ahead of her but they were not stopped.

“I give respect to the uniform. I’m not about violence against police officers because I’ve been taught that they’re supposed to serve and protect us,” Ore said. “I politely asked why he was stopping me. But with every question I asked there was more aggression. He had me spread eagle over the hood of a car. He was touching me. A man was touching me. I was trying to be civil, calm, and measured but with every question there was more aggression, more demands, and violence from him.”

As she found herself down in the middle of the street exposed, Ore said she pleaded for help from bystanders. The encounter, she said, left her with bruises.

Ore said she would have shown the officer her ID, but “He never gave me the opportunity …  From the very beginning he was aggressive and there was one threat after another. It happened very quickly and I was scared.”

Her attorney said that Ore was not required by law to show her ID to the police, because she wasn’t operating a motor vehicle. But the officer can command a person to identify themselves by their name. “He never asked for her name because he was too busy manhandling her,” Roby said.

“This isn’t just about me. I’m one of many. What happened to me is representative of a deep-seated problem,” Ore said. “It bothers me a great deal, particularly on a university campus that purports diversity, to know that just crossing the street I can’t get simple respect.”

Ore said she feels good about the outpouring of support on social media, and the ways in which the conversations are making connections between the policing of black and brown bodies, particularly in the State of Arizona, which has been a hotbed for racial profiling. There is even an online petition which has gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

The incident resonates at a deeper level, Ore said. “People are talking about the history of slavery, manumission papers, how brown bodies can be stopped automatically in Arizona because there are questions about whether they are citizens, whether they belong. People are asking, ‘when is it okay to
question a badge?’”

If Ore hoped that identifying herself as a college professor and demanding to be spoken to with respect would cause the cop to back off, clearly she was wrong.

“I thought maybe telling him that I’m a professor would have given me a little more courtesy. I don’t know what made him approach me. He never asked my name. Telling him that I am a professor didn’t work for me,” she said.

Should She Have Known Better?

On a number of Facebook threads some people said history should have taught the junior professor better, and some debated whether touting one’s credentials might heighten tensions with police. Especially if you are non-white.

"Telling the police that you are a professor may hurt rather than help your cause--if the local police in question harbor race and class resentment or hatred toward black professors. Clearly, it helped neither the ASU professor nor Harvard's Henry Louis Gates,” said Daryl Scott, a professor and chair of the history department at Howard University.

King, from Wooster, said that while this incident is similar to the Gates situation, there is a disturbing gender component that is representative of a long history of white sexual molestation of black women in public spaces.

“Mentioning that you're a professor challenges the authority of the police, since, in this police state, a black women’s gender and race authorizes the police to harass her in the first place. By adding that you're a professor to the mix, might prompt the police officer to use force as a way to reinforce their own authority—as arms of the state and as white men,” King said.

Ore is the latest in a string of black academics who have faced police brutality in recent years. “There have been a number of incidents in which campus police do not see black faculty and students as legitimate members of the campus community,” said Leslie M. Harris, an associate professor of history at Emory University. Campus police sometimes racially profile members of the campus community—in this case, a professor for jaywalking, Harris said.

“The policing of black people for walking has a long sordid history in this country. It seems that universities need to have a serious conversation about the use and abuse of police powers on college campuses,” Harris said.

Ore’s being asked to produce an ID evoked comparisons to the antebellum and post-slavery era when blacks were randomly required to produce papers on demand to verify their status or prove that they belonged to a community. Those were times when hiding success, financial status and educational achievement were part of black survival.

In these contemporary incidents, some see echoes of a past when resentment toward educated blacks sparked aggression and violence.

“I’m a cop who barely graduated from high school so now I have an opportunity to put you in your place, nigger,” said one black female academic who watched the video of Ore’s altercation and didn’t want to be identified. While acknowledging that she benefited from affirmative action, she also encountered the deep resentment of working-class white people who assumed she didn’t deserve what she had earned.

The video is also cold reminder to many non-white academics that no matter how much success, class privilege and education they achieve, the suspicion, the denial of humanity, and the specter of violence are always present. Yet, the implication also is that being a professor should protect them from violence and racism.

“I don’t think it helps” to tell an officer that you are a college professor, said Harris. “I don’t think the claim is believable in those situations. And, when blacks try to claim faculty status, we are claiming a class privilege which does not mitigate the issue of racial profiling,” she added. “When black people, as well as other non-white people, claim professional status, the historical response has been to deny that possibility, and often through violence. We still see that today.”

“Can’t You Tell I’m Pedigreed?”

But pulling the faculty card has worked for a few professors like Stanford University anthropology professor H. Samy Alim and the University of Pennsylvania music professor Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

Alim said that he’s learned to pull what he calls the “accidental university ID trick” after some bad experiences with police.

“I have never identified myself as a professor to police, but I have used the old trick of "accidentally" pulling out my Stanford University ID when officers ask for license,” Alim said. “In my experience, perhaps because of the local prestige of Stanford, it has actually shifted their behavior for the better. I'm treated with the respect deserving of any citizen after that.”

Months after the 9/11 attacks, Ramsey, a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was driving his teenage son and teammate to a track meet and found themselves all looking down the barrel of a Philadelphia police officer’s cocked weapon, being violently ordered to hold their hands outside the car windows.

“I heard the words “three Black male suspects” among the officer’s insistent request for backup and his almost out-of-control commands for us to maintain our submissive positions,” he recalled.

Within seconds they were surrounded by other squad cars, more cops, more guns, and a swirl of other sights and sounds that nearly caused Ramsey to panic. He lay face down on the cement seven blocks from his home, one block from his children’s Catholic school, and eight blocks from the Ivy League campus where he worked, his wrists tightly handcuffed behind him, and an officer’s knee pressed into the small of his back. The more Ramsey insisted that this stop was a mistake and that they had the wrong men in the wrong car, the louder and angrier the cop became.

“My denials expressed in the most articulate, measured tones that I could muster seemed to be making this unthinkable nightmare worse. Then I uttered four magical words that turned the tables and ended the state-sponsored terrorism we were experiencing. ‘I’m a Penn professor,” Ramsey said as they took his campus ID out of his wallet.

“This, it turns out, was the big joker in my sorry deck of cards. What my BMW, fresh-faced, clean-cut passengers, and larger than what is necessary for everyday existence, ‘can’t you tell I’m pedigreed’ vocabulary could not accomplish, a red, white, and blue piece of plastic achieved.” Ramsey and his passengers were set free, shaken up, but unharmed.

Ore’s faculty ID might have done the same for her if she’d had—or taken—the opportunity to pull it out. Then again, it might have made things even worse. One thing is clear though: no terminal degree, faculty position or other symbols of high achievement and respectability are guaranteed to deter police aggression. Because when it comes to interacting with the officers of the law, skin color still trumps all.

Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education and holds a Ph.D. in African American history from Rutgers University.  She is also the author of That Mean Old Yesterday--A Memoir, and is the creator of

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