Mystery Ads Remind New Yorkers About 21st-Century Racism

Racism in America is indeed a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is also something we need to deal with in the present.

anonymous anti-racism posters in new york

Public education has taken to the bus stop kiosks of Brooklyn. (Photo: Rise/Racism Still Exists)

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Anyone walking the streets of Brooklyn the past couple of weeks has probably experienced a heightened awareness of his or her personal likelihood of being randomly stopped and frisked by undercover police officers.

A series of mysterious print advertisements around the New York City borough have drawn attention not for promoting a product or personality, but for highlighting the novel idea that racism still exists in many forms in the supposedly "post-racial" 21st century.

As the birth date of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approaches, the posters are a timely reminder that America still has further to trudge on the road to racial parity. The civil rights leader, slain in April 1968, would have been 84 on January 15. His legacy of non-violent civil disobedience to spotlight and combat prejudice endures today, as does the need for civic engagement—such as the graphics popping up around Brooklyn. 

One notable example of enduring ethnic prejudice, according to the print ads: The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program.

The arresting advertisements, which began appearing around the city five months ago, are accompanied by a detailed background blog post on a tumblr site.

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The latest installment appeared in kiosks around town about two weeks ago. The graphic targets the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, a strategy in which beat cops randomly detain and search “suspicious” pedestrians. Stop and frisk took a hit from a legal challenge this week.

On Tuesday, January 8, District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin issued an injunction prohibiting unjustifiable stop-and-frisk actions by police in certain areas of the city.

The ruling, which was the result of a lawsuit filed by city residents, came after research had shown that police disproportionately stop and search minorities. Of the 685,724 people stopped and frisked in New York City in 2011, 84 percent were black and Latino residents, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group.

“Although public commentary describes the United States as ‘post-racial,’ racism continues to exert a very real and pervasive influence on institutional policies and processes, interpersonal interactions, neighborhood infrastructure, socioeconomic opportunities, media imagery, and more.”

“Don’t want to get stopped by the NYPD?” asks the ad in Brooklyn. “STOP BEING BLACK.”

Residents have taken notice. “What the billboard is doing is kinda opening up and exploding this myth that [stop-and-frisk] is taking place in a race neutral light—it’s making people confront it in a very real way,” Kali Akuno, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s New York chapter, told Colorlines.com.

In addition to highlighting the stop-and-frisk program, the posters have taken aim at the school system—calling it “not separate, but unequal”—the targeting of blacks by fast-food restaurants, and the portrayal of African-American women as servants in feature films, among other issues.

There’s no contact information for the group paying for the posters, either online or on the posters.

RISE, or racism still exists, “is a project designed to illuminate some of the ways in which racism operates in this country,” the blog associated with the posters states. “Although public commentary describes the United States as ‘post-racial,’ racism continues to exert a very real and pervasive influence on institutional policies and processes, interpersonal interactions, neighborhood infrastructure, socioeconomic opportunities, media imagery, and more.”

Since 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected to office, newspaper editors, activists and academics have frequently debated timetables for the death of racism in America. At the time of Obama’s election, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the vote “demonstrates America’s extraordinary capacity to renew itself and adapt to a changing world.”

The court ruling this week, and the posters in Brooklyn, show that Annan’s adaptation hasn’t fully filtered all the way down to the streets of New York City. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where people are judged by character—not by color—still eludes us. 

Why do you think the creators behind these posters have remained anonymous? Theorize in COMMENTS.

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