13 Ways Guatemala Exposed My U.S. American Privilege … And I’m Latino

For years, I’ve helped White folks recognize and understand the social and economic advantage they have over people of color in the U.S. This task isn’t always successful. This type of advantage, or what many call “White privilege”, often distorts one’s perspective on the world. It tends to set the White person’s values, standards, and experiences as the central point of reference to which he or she assesses other peoples’ realities. More importantly, this privilege often blinds a person from seeing how their privilege contributes to social inequity and how their own liberation from shame and guilt can be found in re-purposing their privilege.


I am Latino. I grew up in poverty.  But I am educated, especially in critical theories to analyze class and race differences. If you would have asked me months ago if I considered myself privileged, I would have said, “No. I’m not White.” But after living in Guatemala for a few months, I have come to understand that privilege is not just something that comes with a lighter skin tone or a history of political and economic advantage. Privilege also comes in other forms. For me, it comes in the form of U.S. citizenship, the currency I am accustomed to, and the sense of entitlement that comes with both. I, nevertheless, could not see these things until I chose to live in Antigua, Guatemala. Here are 13 ways that Guatemala exposed my privilege and helped me take my blinders off. Please keep in mind that this is a reflection, not a scholarly take on the matter.

1. Salary. When I first started working as a tutor here, I was discouraged that I was started at $10.65 an hour. I had grown used to working jobs in the U.S. that paid me over $20 an hour. One day, in a discussion with a neighbor, I discovered many locals would do anything for a $10 per hour income. My neighbor shared that he made about $2 an hour, and he was happy because the minimum wage in Guatemala is about $1 an hour. Boom! Just like that, my American Privilege was exposed! Immediately after that, I stopped complaining about my pay rate. 

2. Cost of Living. Initially, I was paying about $500 a month for an Airbnb, which I thought was pretty cheap, compared to cheap housing in the U.S., which ranges from $800 to $1,500 p/month, depending on the city. I then found another apartment that cost me $235 per month. Yes, $235 per month! This seemed pretty cheap to me, until I was reminded of how much the average person makes. Many of the locals here in Antigua live in shacks near the foot of the hills and not in apartments like the ones I’ve lived in. I was excited, but then I realized that even my excitement was rooted in privilege.

3. Customer Service. There’s nothing that pleases the American ego more than good customer service. In the States, we say, “The customer is always right.” Businesses go above and beyond to calibrate their customer service in order to make customers happy. It’s big business. No so in Guatemala. The restaurant ran out of that item on the menu that you wanted so you ask for a deal on another item. Nope, not happening. You paid the shop to get your headphones fixed but they still don’t work, so you demand a refund. Sorry, we tried. The service was 25 minutes late, so you ask for a discount. Nothing. You can argue, push, and quote the great customer service law, but in Guatemala, you get what you get. Privilege does not like this at all.

4. Napkins and Toilet Paper. In the U.S., you will usually have a stack of napkins on the table at whatever restaurant you choose to eat. Need to go to the restroom? No worries. There’s plenty of toilet paper there for all of your needs. Not so in Guatemala! Here you get one napkin with your order of food, and if you need to use the restroom, there’s a lady right outside of it who you have to pay to use it. She will give you a few squares of toilet paper. Now, this contrast may make it seem like we’re better off in the U.S. But for me, it reveals that abundance (a U.S. tendency) often predicates wastefulness, whereas scarcity, which is sometimes looked at with pity, often results in responsible stewardship. This clearly taught me that my privilege, and its proclivity toward convenience, is wasteful.

5. Phone Use. I used to critique the dominant phone companies in Guatemala (Tigo and Claro) for the way their system is arranged. Basically, if you want phone service, you have to buy minutes/bytes for your phone, which come in a limited amount that you have to use within a period of time. If you use up your bytes/minutes before the period of time, there’s nothing you can do but buy more. And if your period of time arrives before you finish your bytes/minutes, again, there’s nothing you can do. I thought this was all a scam to make money. So I stuck to my U.S. service (T-Mobile). Then my phone got stolen. I soon realized I had no choice but to purchase a local phone. What I quickly discovered was that I was spending way more on my U.S. phone (c. $80 p/month) than on my Guatemalan phone (c. $16 p/mo). I then began to see how much the Guatemalan system discourages folks from becoming “phone heads” while the U.S system, with its abundance of unlimited services, encourages folks to constantly be on their phones. While the Guatemalan system has reduced my phone use and saved me lots of money, my neighbors have a hard time buying a phone or having service at all. This is something I’ve never had to experience. Now, when I pull up my phone, all I see is privilege.

6. Communal Living. My apartment complex has a shared kitchen, so I bought my own pan and knife. None of the knives in the kitchen were sharp and all of the pans were worn out. Everything gets stuck on them. If I tried cutting a tomato, the knives would just smash them. If I tried cooking eggs on the pan, they would just get stuck to the bottom of the pan. So I was very happy to have my own knife and pan … that is, until I realized my neighbors did also. Everyday, neighbors would pull my pan or knife out of my kitchen cubby without permission, and they didn’t always put them back. More frustratingly, when I would see them using my supplies, they’d greet me without any ounce of guilt. This annoyed me. One night, my neighbors, having used my supplies, treated each other with meals. My reaction was, “First my supplies. Then, they will want my food.” So I avoided participating, until one day, in an effort to be polite, I gave in. I ate the food, we laughed, and shared stories. What I learned was that sharing my cooking supplies was more than just about the supplies … It was about living together, knowing each other, and helping one another. I came to discover that I was the only one with my own pan and knife. Others didn’t have the financial capacity to buy their own. And to hoard these supplies for myself and hide myself from my neighbors was to rob myself of an enriching experience in communal culture. Without words, my neighbors who wanted to borrow my things taught me that my things, and the privilege that makes it possible to possess these things, can isolate me from the things that ultimately matter, like human connection and reciprocity.

7. Drinking Water. “Don’t drink the water,” they told me, “it will give you diarrhea for days.” But this didn’t scare me at all. I saw it as an opportunity to share in the struggle of locals, buying water daily to stay hydrated. This cost me a dollar-fifty a day for a gallon of water. But after one week, two weeks, a month and so forth, water started becoming expensive. Before I knew it, it wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. I realized that what I had considered a fun challenge was a burdensome reality for locals, and that even this attitude of mine — “an opportunity” — was born out of privilege. Only a privileged person can take other people’s struggle and turn it into a fun activity. Privilege deceived me. Time corrected me. So I decided to stop looking at this as a fun thing to experience. I also wanted to put an end to my water expenditure, so I bought a water filter. Then I realized that this too was an option for a privileged person like me. 

8. Personal Space. Whether it’s walking down the sidewalk, lining up to make an order at a restaurant, or riding the bus, there seems to be no sense of personal space here. The sidewalks are narrow, so if you find yourself crossing another person’s path, you might bump into each other and locals don’t take offense. If you line up at a restaurant, you might feel the other person’s shoulder rub against you, if not, you may encounter them yelling out the order before you get to make your order, and it’s perfectly fine. The bus is epic — two seats doesn’t mean two seats. It means “fit as many as the seats can hold.” Initially, this frustrated me. I wondered if people even had manners. Then I realized that was my privilege reacting and that in this context, my need for personal space is selfish.

9. Right of Way. In Guatemala, cars have the right of way. It’s not like in the U.S. where people have the right of way. It doesn’t matter how many times a car or vehicle almost hits me, the truth is if I don’t move fast but take my precious time to walk my privileged self across the street, I can become Guatemalan roadkill. And the only thing the cops will say, if I was hit by a car, is, “Well, he should have moved faster.” My privilege tempts me to take my time to cross; the cars compel me relinquish my privileged attitude and run.

10. Laundry. Washer and dryers are generally for the elite in Guatemala. Most of the common folk either wash clothes by hand in a traditional stone washer called a “pila”, or they turn in their laundry to a hired washer who doesn’t always return all your clothes. I decided to wash my own clothes by hand because I didn’t want to lose them, but my privilege caused me to complain because this method wasn’t convenient, like a washer and dryer would be. Here, there is no easy solution: either I have someone wash my clothes, risking some of it being lost, or I wash my own clothes which is a task I don’t want to engage in. My privilege was stuck between two options I do not like, and in both cases, my privilege doesn’t allow me to be in peace. I have yet to find peace with this issue, but what this issue has taught me is that my privilege pushes me toward a lifestyle of convenience.

11. Crossing Borders. Foreigners are allowed to stay in Guatemala for 90 days. Then they have to either renew their permit at the immigration office in the capitol or exit the country and return. When my permit expired, I chose the second option. So I went for a journey to El Salvador, and what do you know? The renewal policy didn’t apply to this exit. If I wanted to renew my stay in Guatemala, I had to exit and return through Mexico. So after several hundred dollars in fees to exit and re-enter Guatemala at the Salvadoran border, I headed the opposite way to the Mexican border. In both trips, I was surrounded by Central Americans who were crossing the border both legally and illegally. And while I may have complained about the fees, my Central American neighbors, who couldn’t afford paying the fees, were being deterred, detained, or sent back to their country. Many of them couldn’t afford paying fees or didn’t pass the scrutiny the Mexican border patrol applies to Central Americans. I, on the other hand, had the privilege of possessing the right amount of money and because I am a U.S. citizen, they didn’t feel the need to scrutinize me for details. So I renewed my stay and as I returned to my Guatemalan home, I kept thinking: if I wanted to travel back to the U.S., which is where most of these migrants were heading, I could have easily arranged that. But not my migrant friends could never make these kinds of arrangements. They don’t have the kind of privilege that can more easily pass them through borders. They don’t have U.S. citizenship.

12. Coronavirus. With the spread of the Coronovirus, many nations have gone on lockdown, shutting their doors to foreign visitors. In that process, I had to cancel my trip to the UK because Ireland went on lock down. I was so upset! Then, in a conversation with my Guatemalan neighbor, I realized that while I was panicked about a trip, many of my neighbors were worried about food and the possible collapse of their livelihood. Only privilege can make you cry about a trip rather than cry over the collapse of the world that others are experiencing. I’m still getting over the loss of this trip.

13. Police Stops. During this week of coronavirus lockdown, I have been pulled over twice by officers, not having a passport with me (It’s illegal to not carry an ID). I believe the problem was my tattoos — I have two sleeves and a large chest tattoo. I was wearing a tank top. This may seem out of line, but in Guatemala, tattoos are generally associated with criminal street gangs. While the officers may have felt like they scored by catching what seemed to be a gang member, my citizenship crashed their party. In both cases, they approached me with an authoritarian complex, and in both cases, they left me alone and treated me with respect, once they verified my identity. Locals, like my friend Negro who was thrown into jail for not having his ID, aren’t usually as privileged. U.S. citizenship goes a long way. Officers do tend to treat Americans differently. It’s a privilege.

Conclusion. I am thankful for Guatemala and my Guatemalan neighbors. They taught me things I would have never learned on my own. This may be an off topic way to finish but I think it’s important to state: Diversity is important; it helps us see things that we would otherwise not be capable of seeing.


Identifying Challenges Among Emerging Latinx Christian Leaders in Fresno’s (CA) Evangelical Context

On August 14, 2016, I met with a group of six Latinx leaders (“x”–prevents gender categories from dominating the ethnic label). The purpose of this meeting was to have a conversation about our experiences in Fresno’s (CA) Evangelical context. Every person in this group was, what we now call, an Emerging Latinx Christian leader (ELCL): a young professional who not only has a complex, Latinx, ethnic/cultural identity, but also a stake-hold in Fresno’s Evangelical / Protestant setting, with an increasing level of leadership therein. This conversation turned into several discussions that brought to the surface a common concern for the spiritual, social, and professional well-being of other ELCLs. As a result, this group formed into an intentional cohort that has been meeting on a regular basis, and in February 2017, this cohort decided to launch a self-reporting survey to explore how to better understand the broader experience of other ELCLs in Fresno’s Evangelical Context.

According to this survey, most respondents shared that although they tend to seemingly function well in Fresno’s Christian (viz. Evangelical and predominantly White) setting, they have experienced different forms of racism and levels of social anxiety . The results of this survey have compelled us to deeply reflect on the following question: Is there unresolved / unaddressed racial dynamics taking place in Fresno’s Evangelical / Protestant context that need to be discussed / engaged?

*The following presents the results of the survey. This survey was completed on March 16, 2017 by 47 emerging, Latinx leaders from Fresno. The Data was compiled by Sarah Cuevas and Dallhana Garcia in May 2017.

Demographic Data, Education, and Church Affiliation



General Experience of Emerging Latinx Leaders In Fresno (CA) Christian Context

Top three “challenging things” about being a Latinx Christian in Fresno, CA (in ranking order)

  1. Dissonance with dominant, white culture
  2. Being misunderstood (from both white and Latinx groups)
  3. Facing barriers to leadership

Top three “best things” about being a Latinx Christian in Fresno, CA (in ranking order)

  1. How we embrace our culture (food, language, family, etc.)
  2. A strong community
  3. Beauty in our diversity

Experience of Explicit Racism

Have you ever experienced explicit racism in Fresno’s Christian context?
Yes 36.2% 17
No 57.4% 27
Not Sure/ NA 6.4% 3

Sample of Descriptive Answers:


  • “Preached from the pulpit, excluded from certain meetings, denied financial support, flamed on social media.”
  • “I have had to confront explicit racism several times”
  • People have used scripture to support legalism/racism (in regards to immigration)
  • “I’ve been treated lower or ‘not good enough’ because of my upbringing”


  • “Not been in Fresno’s Christian context enough to know”
  • “Not necessarily, but some older folks have misconceptions about inner city missions”
  • “Lightness of my skin


  • “Hard to say”
  • “Not that I recall”

Experiences of Microaggressions (Implicit Racism)

Have you ever experienced microaggressions in Fresno’s Christian context?
Yes 59.6% 28
No 34% 16
Somewhat 6.4% 3

Sample of Descriptive Answers:


  • “Been asked questioned based on [racial/cultural] assumptions”
  • “I love Mexican people, but if you can’t come legally then you should expect to legal consequences. Nobody is above the law, not even me”
  • “Border jokes”
  • “Being offered lower paying position, while White friends move up the ladder”
  • “Not asked to speak at church functions”
  • “Power dynamics of white leadership”
  • “Only being welcomed to tables because I am Latina/Christian/ Educated/Connected to the community”


  • “Half Mexican. Half White. Treated as white”
  • “Not that I remember”


  • “I just felt like my experience or perspective was not deemed as important or valued or less willing to be understood or validated”

Functioning Well / Experiencing Anxiety

Do you tend to overtly function well in predominantly white, social settings?
Yes 51.1% 24
No 21.3% 10
Somewhat 27.7% 13

Sample of Descriptive Answers:


  • “Able to get by”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable”
  • “Adapt… [I need] to be twice as smart and accomplished to be at the table”


  • “Become extremely self-aware”
  • “I don’t belong”
  • “I feel like an attraction”


  • “Learn to adapt and function”
  • “Feel out of place”
  • “Can’t be open or express my opinions”
Do you tend to experience internal anxiety in predominantly white, social settings?
Yes 51.1% 26
No 25.5% 12
Somewhat 23.4% 11

Correlation Chart: Experience of Internal Anxiety & Functioning Well

Functioning Well Anxiety Somewhat No
No 6 3 1
Somewhat 8 4 1
Yes 10 4 10

Experiences of Empowerment and Disempowerment

Empowerment vs. Disempowerment
Empowerment 51.0% 25
Disempowerment 34.7% 17
I dont know/ Somewhat 14.3% 7

Sample of Descriptive Answers:


  • “Overall empowered. The director of the Christian camp told me he would value any input I had about how the camp operates. “
  • “I feel empowered by my Christian mentors.”
  • “By my church, yes, but only because my husband was on staff with the church.”
  • “By my workplace, yes. My supervisor always gives me an opportunity to speak and share my ideas during our meetings and always nominates to speak at different engagements. His belief in me helps me believe in myself.”
  • “Yes, I have authority to craft the programs that our students participate in, and can speak openly about the ways that our church’s religious education system operates. However, in RC contexts the fixed liturgical rites make it difficult to introduce explicit justice-oriented activity apart from the initiative of the bishop, for example.”


  • “I’ve been disempowered by my church because there’s a family that thinks they have a right to run the church.”
  • “I do not feel empowered or invited by the leadership at my home church. Outside of the central valley, yes I do. “
  • “I have been invited but only to be used as a token or representative a my ethnicity or culture. asking for my perspective then shutting it down isnt really empowerment.”
  • “No, we have been in a Volunteer Pastoral role for eight years and since we serve a marginalized community all offerings goes to the upkeep of the church and to serve the neighborhood. We don’t have the denomination support and I am already burnt out. “

Correlation Graph: Level of Empowerment-Disempowerment and Level of Ethnic Identity


* For more information about this survey and its more comprehensive form, please contact Sarah Cuevas at

The Hidden Face of Urban Leaders in Fresno CA–¡Nuestras Madres! (Our Mothers)

When we think of Christian urban leaders, the first image that comes to mind for most of us in the Christian context is the image of a well-trained, program director or CEO of a faith based non-profit organization/program. We tend to see this type of person as the one who leads groups of people in the direction of changing their inner-city neighborhood.

But that is not necessarily the case in Fresno.

For the past decade or so, Beth (my spouse) and I have been deeply invested in the relational fabric of downtown Fresno, engaging development work with ministry and civic leaders, contributing to projects that aim at creating change and hope. But the more intentional Beth and I made ourselves with our neighbors, the more we began to discover a different image of a Christian, urban leader: one that looked more like a Spanish speaking mother between 20 and 50 years of age, whose husband works in the fields or construction, who helps navigate traffic before and after school hours, who pushes a stroller to council meetings to advocate for her neighborhood, and who never misses a Sunday Mass service. This is the real image of a Christian urban leader in most of our downtown neighborhoods. Unfortunately, not many see this, but it’s okay because these women are not seeking praise or glory. They are only doing what they believe is the right thing to do.

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Mariachis play at the Mother’s Day celebration

Beth and I have offered our property as a meeting place for our neighbors. There they meet regularly to brainstorm ways they can change the neighborhood. Having finished a few projects—getting their council member to fix a couple of alleys and compelling a slumlord to rehab a house that was being squatted in—Raquel, one of the group’s leaders, decided it was time to honor the women on Mother’s Day with a fiesta where all the families can come and celebrate the hard working women in the neighborhood. As they began to plan, a type of Acts 6 (Conflict over neglected widows) moment occurred: the group was divided over the dates—the Mexican mother’s day and the U.S. version of mother’s day—not to mention that some women did not have their husbands either because of deportations, marital conflict, and other circumstances. So some women felt that a family oriented celebration would leave many women feeling neglected. On top of that, having the money was a challenge. But we were reminded that we should not plan around money but around God because God is bigger than money. Plus, God validates the mothers in our area. The result: the women organized two celebrations—one on the Mexican day for women only and one on the U.S. day for families.

The celebrations were amazing. There was lots of food, mariachis, dancing, but most of all … the celebration, smiles, and laughter reminded us that we owe a lot to the mothers (biological or covenantal)—esp. those doing all of the work behind the scenes in our neighborhoods and our churches. They do so much without a demand to be seen. But God sees them, and we walk with God, we can begin to see them as well.

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(Jefferson Neighborhood Leaders: Alejandra, Raquel, Adriana, Andrea)


A Simple Framework for Understanding Illegal Immigration Beyond Roman’s 13


The purpose of the video is to equip people of faith with a framework that will help them further explore the complexities of illegal immigration beyond narrow conclusions drawn from Romans 13:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

(This video was recorded on May 31, 2017 by Ivan Paz.)


Stealth Racism Lurking Behind Law Enforcement’s Practice of High-Crime Neighborhood Profiling

Officers no longer say, “I pulled him/her over simply because he/she was black / Latino.” Beyond political correctness, most people would agree that this kind of statement is inherently racist. No questions asked. In fact, this practice, also known as “racial profiling”, was once common in law enforcement but is now deemed unconstitutional. But what about when officers, patrolling a neighborhood made up mostly of people of color, say, “I pulled him/her over because the neighborhood I encountered him/her in is, statistically speaking, a bad neighborhood”? Would this statement and the kind of profiling this statement justifies be considered racial, or racist, in nature?


Video by GVWire

As I reflect on this question, I can’t help but think of Fresno’s (CA) police chief Jerry Dyer’s response to the question “What is injustice?”, during a community gathering intended to create spaces for conversations around community policing, BLM (Black Lives Matter), and coming together. After using a story of a local tragedy to define injustice–a story of a child who became innocent casualty to street crime and no one in the community seemed to want to collaborate with the police–Chief Dyer made an interesting statement about the seemingly racialized nature of policing in Fresno. In the video interview, Chief Dyer says:

The truth of the matter is the reason we are in these neighborhoods in policing is because we know that’s where the violence occurs. We unfortunately know that 53% of the shootings that occur in Fresno are committed by African Americans, even though they only make up 7.7% of the population … So it stands as a reason that our officers are gonna be in those neighborhoods for the protection of people. And during that time, they’re gonna be making traffic stops, detaining people … and there’s a potential for confrontation.

In sum, what Chief Dyer is saying–if I am to take his words at point blank–is that the police practice of stopping and frisking, detaining, and interrogating people–viz. African Americans–in high crime neighborhoods should be met with understanding from the public, especially in light of what the criminal data reveals.

I agree: a community not holding a killer of a child accountable is definitely unjust! And I agree that some of these neighborhoods have high degrees of criminal activity, according to records. But really, Chief? Should the crime of a few really alter the way the rest of the community gets treated?

With much respect to law enforcement (I know many whose hearts are sincere), I must push back. This is not a police state! People should not have to bear with police discrimination just because they live in high crime neighborhoods. As reasonable as the Chief’s explanation may seem to many officers and Fresnans (and other officers and people across the nation), this practice and its way of thinking is not right. In fact, I think it is just as reasonable to suspect that behind the rhetoric and methodology at work in this form of profiling lurks the same racial stereotypes and prejudices that existed in the formerly institutionalized practice of racial profiling. In other words, the two, racial profiling and what I call “social-spatial profiling” (a term I use to avoid sophisticatingly complex, criminological jargon), are essentially the same thing: both approaches end up targeting the same people (viz. Blacks and Latinos) and discriminate against them, treating them as possible suspects of crime! The only difference between the two is that the starting point of one is explicitly race/ethnicity while the starting point of the other is geography associated with criminal statistics. And since the former police practice of racial profiling is no longer appropriate, it is reasonable to suspect that this less controversial yet more subtle approach has replaced it. The only uniqueness of this new form of criminal profiling is that it helps construct an image of criminality that avoids blatantly racialized categories and focuses instead on city space, namely city spaces where crime statistics are high (i.e. “hot spots”). This geographic, hot spot centered, profiling approach focuses on the repetition of crime within a particular area, helping investigators predict “the [offender’s] most likely place of residence, place of work, social venues and travel routes, etc.”[1] This approach, however, tends to go beyond identifying repetitions of crime within geographic space and ultimately defines neighborhoods ontologically, creating a one-sided portrait of a community, which then affects law enforcement and the public’s perception not only of the space but of the people that live in that space. As I said in a previous blog post:

By profiling criminality in this way, our police institutions ultimately move beyond managing assessing criminal data and into generalizing a whole community of people. The statistics represent the criminality of a few, but the image created includes the characteristics of the many. As a result, both the criminals and the broader community to which the criminals belong become indistinguishable. In mathematical terms, the numerator (criminals) is equated with the denominator (their ethnic community), and the fraction (differences) consequently transforms into a whole number (sameness).

This way of identifying criminality is incomplete, unfair, and imbalanced. Ultimately, it is discriminatory and racist. It compels people to conceptualize criminality with images of poor urban neighborhoods, areas filled with violent and kleptomaniacal people of color. Moreover, this form of profiling overlooks the fact that crime is likewise being committed by people who live in economically stable neighborhoods, though these crimes may seem different in form. These kinds of crimes, what I call “crimes of the affluent”—tax fraud, prescription drug abuse, DUI (Driving Under the Influence), internet hacking, identity theft, embezzlement, negligence in employee safety—are not always considered the kinds of crimes that we should worry about, even though the impact of these crimes are just as damaging as the kind of crimes that prevail in urban neighborhoods.[2] Unfortunately, crime is not generally associated with affluent–and especially White–people, nor are criminal investigators saying, “The reason we are continually interrogating people who live in affluent neighborhoods is because we know statistically that they are the ones engaged in large scale white collar crimes.” The fact of the matter is officers don’t monitor affluent neighborhoods or interrogate the people who live therein because crime is not generally associated with those geographic spaces nor with the dominant race/ethnicity (White) that tend to reside in those spaces, and certainly not with the kind of crime that people in those spaces are known to commit. Instead, crime is associated with the kinds of crimes that are committed in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods. As a result, affluent people are generally treated as innocent until proven guilty, while poor people of color are treated as guilty until proven innocent–even though both kinds of people are equally engaged in criminal behavior.

Let’s be honest: associating crime with poor neighborhoods of color seems like a much more innocent way of identifying criminality than associating crime with race and ethnicity. But it is essentially a form of “stealth racism” in policing. By this, I do not mean that officers are themselves racist, though some officers sometimes are. The point I am making here is that the institutional systems of protocol that officers have to abide by, continue to operate in the same ways that they once did under the paradigm of racialized policing approaches. Whereas racism was once overt in the old paradigm, it is now covert in the new, stealth and hidden beneath the language of geographically based crime control efforts. People, and especially law enforcement officers, do not generally like to be seen as prejudiced or racist. But this new way of determining crime control, by associating crime with areas of urban poverty rather than explicitly with race, makes discriminatory policing practices seem understandable.[3]

These articulations used to justify this practice are none other than part of a tortuous language game: they mostly serve to hide the practice of racial profiling. But even worse, this practice of associating criminality with a particular neighborhood affects one’s perception of the people who reside in that area. Associating criminality with dwelling space directly associates crime with its people indirectly; applying labels geographically, labels people ontologically. In the words of Willie Jennings: “This [type of] linguistic deployment alters reality, blowing by and through the specifics of identity bound to land, space, and place and narrating a new world that binds bodies to unrelenting aesthetic judgments.”[4] And the judgments that come from this form of labeling inflicts serious injury to the people who reside therein.

As a Christian who is called to be a peacemaker and to live in solidarity with society’s disenfranchised, I must uncover the truth hidden behind these kinds of de-humanzing practices. I must say, “No, Chief. This way of identifying crime doesn’t justify the way officers engage our neighbors. While seeking to define injustice in an act of unjustifiable street brutality, your way of justifying discriminatory police engagement in disenfranchised communities of color is itself unjust! There is a reason why people won’t collaborate with officers on investigations, and the explanation for this is found in the distrust that these police practices tend to engender in poor communities of color.”

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric or by the way that criminal statistics/data are being used. Behind the practice of this type of socio-spatial profiling lies the notorious practice of racial profiling, a practice that puts people in danger of institutional violence. In fact, this form of labeling impacts people of color to such an extent that even if one of them was encountered by an armed citizen outside of their neighborhood, that person of color would be stereotyped and possibly treated as dangerous or criminal. Remember Trayvon Martin: the Black teenager who was shot and killed by the neighborhood watch leader, George Zimmerman. The reason? Trayvon looked like he was “from the other side of town”, up to no good–a criminal.[5]

[This blog post uses many thoughts/words from chapter 4 of my Master’s thesis]

[1] Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown, “Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive Neoliberal and City,” Antipode 38, iss. 4 (2006): 755-777, 757.

[2] Jefferey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Kindle ed., chap. 2.

[3] For interest in research that explores more thoroughly negative perceptions of urban neighborhoods and the fears and prejudices that these perceptions provoke, I recommend the following work: Clete Snell, Neighborhood Structure, Crime, and Fear of Crime: Testing Bursik and Grasmick’s Neighborhood Control Theory, ed. Marily McShane and Frank P. Williams (New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2001).

[4] Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), Kindle ed., chap. 1.

[5] John Minchillo, “Trayvon Martin Case: Is young, black and wearing a hoodie a recipe for disaster?” NBC News, March 22, 2012. Click Here.