A Black Professor Asked by Police to Prove She Belonged on Campus Talks About the ‘Surreal’ Experience of Racism in Higher Ed Spaces

Santa Clara University professor Danielle Fuentes Morgan and her brother, musician and composer Carlos Fuentes
Santa Clara University professor Danielle Fuentes Morgan and her brother, musician and composer Carlos Fuentes
Photo: Matt Morgan

Danielle Fuentes Morgan had been looking forward to the reunion with her brother for months.

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The assistant professor at Santa Clara University was hosting her younger brother, Carlos Fuentes, a composer and music teacher, at her home last weekend. Though he lives in nearby Sacramento, the siblings hadn’t seen each other since last Christmas due to the coronavirus pandemic. Morgan’s children, 7 and 2 years old, were elated to be in the presence of their uncle. As for Morgan herself, she woke up the day after his arrival early, excited and happy—the first time she remembered feeling that way in months.

But a few hours later, Morgan and her brother, both of whom are Black, would find themselves at the center of yet another incident of racist profiling and over-policing on a college campus. As Morgan wrote in a Twitter thread that went viral over the weekend, Fuentes left her on-campus home on Saturday morning to take a work call outside, in one of the university’s picturesque green spaces. He wasn’t out long before campus police interrupted his call, demanding to know who he was and what brought him on the campus.

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The interaction eventually drew more campus police—four cars in total, she said—who followed Fuentes back to Morgan’s doorstep. There, officers questioned Morgan and asked her to show her campus ID to prove that she was, in fact, a Santa Clara professor—despite her answering the door in a designated faculty housing building.

“I wasn’t surprised that it was happening to me,” Morgan told The Root over the phone earlier this week. (Full disclosure: Morgan and I have been acquainted for several years.) “It all just felt very surreal because you never wake up thinking, Today’s the day it’s going to happen.”

She described the officer being very aggressive to her, demanding proof that she belonged on campus and in her own home. It wasn’t until her husband, who is white, got involved that the officer’s demeanor toward her changed, she says. Morgan thinks what defused the situation, ultimately, was the presence of five neighbors—all of whom were white—standing by, observing her interaction with the campus officers and vouching for her. Morgan’s husband did most of the talking with the officers, she noted, because he was aware his race and gender made him safer and more credible in the eyes of the officers than either her or her brother.

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But while Morgan, who teaches English and writes frequently about race and racism, wasn’t surprised by the encounter, that didn’t prevent her from experiencing what many people do during traumatic events. Even as she walked the tightrope of negotiating an aggressive and unreasonable police interaction, she felt as though some part of her were outside of her body, witnessing the event unfold. She likened the incident on the liberal college campus to an episode of The Twilight Zone or something concocted by filmmaker Jordan Peele.

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“It really felt like a satire unfolding in front of me,” she said. “It was just such a ridiculous situation. Prove that you’re a faculty member, in fact, while you open the door in faculty housing.” Prove that you live in your own home. Show the proper documents; give us evidence that you belong.

The experience didn’t stop being surreal once police officers finally left, either. Morgan says she and her brother had just about three minutes to talk about what happened before he had to abruptly end the conversation. He was scheduled to give a video piano lesson to a 5-year-old.

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“He goes into the bedroom and closes the door and I can hear my brother’s boisterous, happy voice talking to a child and pretending like none of this happened. He had to do what so many Black people have to do to survive, which is to tamp down and quiet down his emotions, to continue interacting with people,” Morgan said. “I keep thinking about that.”

Morgan and her brother are far from alone in their experience. Students of color around the color, particularly Black student organizations, have been calling out racism on college campuses across the country for decades. In recent years, as social media and cell phones have further enabled Black students to document their experiences, stories have consistently cropped up about Black students, faculty and staffers encountering campus police for innocuous behavior, like taking a nap, eating in common areas or walking to on-campus facilities.

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Her particular experience is also not unique—calling to mind the high-profile arrest of renowned Harvard professor and The Root founder Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009, as he was attempting to enter his own home.

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Santa Clara University is considered a progressive enclave, like much of Northern California. But despite its liberal leanings, the demographics of the school hint at the isolation and hypervisibility that Black people face in such institutions. Only 2 percent of the student body is Black, and Morgan is one of only seven Black faculty on the campus.

Morgan wants to keep this fact front and center as her story becomes national news—covered by outlets like the Washington Post, The Hill, and HuffPost—that she and her brother’s experience isn’t exceptional, but endemic to educational institutions. Black students have borne the brunt of racist profiling and policing for decades, and have attempted to hold institutions accountable despite having fewer protections and smaller platforms than a tenure-track professor like Morgan.

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While she understands why her story has received so much attention, that wasn’t her aim when she initially went online to tell her and her brother’s story, Morgan says. She wanted to publicly acknowledge what happened to her brother, to name what happened, and to order her thoughts about the incident.

“This is my little brother, and I wanted to support him. I imagined that I was going to write this thing and then I was going to take the tweets and form a really eloquent complaint to the university,” Morgan said. But once the thread went up, “it gained so much traction that within 30 minutes of sending that thread, I had received calls from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, from the [university] president and from my dean.”

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The university has pledged an investigation into the matter. Shortly after Morgan went public with the incident, Santa Clara University President Kevin F. O’Brien said he was “deeply sorry” about what happened, writing in a letter to the university faculty, staff and students that “racial bias or profiling has no place on our campus.”

Morgan says she wants to see what the school will do in response to the incident but notes there have been clear asks from students and faculty of color across the country about what they need from their institutions to feel safe and protected.

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They know what to do at this point,” she said. “Now is not the time to form more committees. Now is not the time for more conversations. Now is the time for action.”

When asked about how she’s been processing the police confrontation and all its accompaniments—the social media updates, the media queries, the spattering of hateful responses and the scores of uplifting messages of support—Morgan has just one word: “overwhelmed.”

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Fuentes left to go back home on Monday morning—the bulk of their time together and energy stolen by the choices a handful of campus police made on a Saturday morning.

“It takes up so much space,” she said. “And that has been really difficult.”

Staff writer, The Root.

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DISCUSSION

johnbeckwith
B'dilliBay

But despite its liberal leanings,

You can’t reliably count on “liberal leanings” to prevent this bullshit anymore. Just a false sense of security. Liberals got us the vapid DNC convention while the Trumps are at the RNC convention lighting up their base.