The White Dog Walker and #LivingWhileBlack in New York City – The New York Times

Samuel Roberts, a professor at Columbia University, remembered being stopped by the police as he walked his Rottweiler along Morningside Drive after someone reported that a black man was robbing people with a dog in tow.

Tamiesha Parris Flatts, a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, recalled how once, when she was slow to get out of a New York City cab, the driver of the car behind called her a racial slur.

Ryan Brown, who works for the job search website Indeed, recalled all the times he had gone shopping and was mistaken for a store employee.

It didn’t take a video of a white dog owner falsely accusing a black man to remind black New Yorkers that even a proudly progressive city that likes to brag about diversity can also be hostile and racist.

Even so, the video dredged up memories, some old, some fresh, of their own experiences being profiled and confronted, while walking their own dogs, hailing a cab, and otherwise living in New York while black.

New York City’s image as a place of integration and harmony has long been a draw for people of all cultures and identities. But the video chipped away at that image, which some had held onto out of psychological necessity but had always regarded as a thin veneer.

“I cried last night,” said Ms. Parris Flatts, 36, as she stood on Wednesday in the Ramble in Central Park with her 4-year-old daughter, near the spot where the now-infamous standoff occurred.

The video of that encounter, as well as the recording of another black man, George Floyd, dying in the custody of the Minneapolis police, was still weighing heavily on her. “When does this stop? How many videos do we need to see? How many?”

The confrontation between Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her cocker spaniel, and Christian Cooper, a black bird watcher, has been seen more than 40 million times since being posted on Twitter by Mr. Cooper’s sister.

Mr. Cooper had asked Ms. Cooper, no relation, to restrain her dog, and when she didn’t, he started recording her. She is seen calling 911 and telling the dispatcher that an African-American man is threatening her and the dog. “Please send the cops immediately,” she says breathlessly.

She issued an apology after she had become a pariah on social media and lost her dog to the rescue agency she had adopted from. She soon lost her job at an investment firm as well.

Her shift in the video from indignation to damsel-in-distress inflection troubled many people, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he was “appalled.”

“It was literally an effort to criminalize being a black man in America,” he said.

Mr. de Blasio, who is white, is married to a black woman, Chirlane McCray, and they have two biracial children, living symbols of New York’s diversity. But the city also has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, and many neighborhoods remain dominated by one race or ethnicity, creating spaces that can sometimes feel inherently white or black, Hispanic or Asian.

In interviews, several black New Yorkers noted how the incident took place in Central Park, which is theoretically an oasis for all but can still be demarcated by race, with the sections closest to white neighborhoods, including the Ramble, feeling like white spaces. And for many people, especially black and Hispanic people, Central Park is also synonymous with the Central Park Five, the teenagers wrongly accused of raping a jogger there in 1989.

“One of the reasons, among many, that people in New York City are particularly riled up about this video and about this person is we know about what happened to those five young men who were exonerated after having their lives derailed forever because of faulty police work, a lying investigator, botched interviews, et cetera, et cetera, all because of something that happened in Central Park,” said Taja-Nia Y. Henderson, a professor at Rutgers Law School, dean of the Rutgers Graduate School-Newark and a longtime New Yorker.

“We know that Central Park itself is built on land formerly owned by a free black community,” she continued. “Central Park itself is special in a lot of ways. For all that to be in the background of that case makes it emotional for a lot of us who live in the city. This isn’t just a confrontation in any old park.”

Mr. Brown, who was a young child when the jogger attack occurred, said that his parents taught him that he had to navigate the city differently.

“I used to work across from Central Park and I used to jog in Central Park on my lunch breaks,” Mr. Brown, 33, said, “and even then, just growing up here, I would make sure I wouldn’t jog alone near any white women.”

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Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

He said he could easily see himself in Mr. Cooper’s shoes. “It could have been a jogger,” he said. “It could have been a biker. It could have been a delivery guy. It could have been me.”

But Mr. Brown cannot avoid indignities altogether, finding himself a target while shopping in stores.

He said he usually lets it slide. “But then finally when I have the guts to say, ‘Why did you assume that I work here?’ they get very defensive: ‘I didn’t assume you work here!’”

“Well, OK, so now I’m the bad guy,” he said.

John Ballard, 51, a native New Yorker and a workplace consultant, said he found it painful to watch the video, having been emotionally exhausted from profiling incidents in his own life.

“You always try to comply but if this happens to you again, and again, and again, then at some point, I don’t care who you are, what your culture is, you’re going to get tired,” he said.

Dorian Graham, a television producer, remembered calming himself in an argument with a white woman on a plane at one of New York’s airports because inevitably “it will escalate into something it’s not.”

Mr. Graham, 53, who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, said he has to tell his 20-year-old daughter to be more cognizant of the New York that lies outside her community in the Bronx: “Your neighborhood is black and Hispanic. That’s a bubble. That’s a hair follicle. The rest of the country is majority white.”

Ms. Henderson, the Rutgers dean, and Jamila Jefferson-Jones of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law wrote a paper this year titled “#LivingWhileBlack: Blackness as Nuisance,” following a series of high-profile incidents of white citizens calling police on black people, from a woman who called the police on a group of black people barbecuing in a park in Oakland, Calif., to the white employee of a Starbucks in Philadelphia who called the police on two black patrons within minutes of them sitting down.

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Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

“In the most widely reported incidents, white people called the police on black people in public parks; at youth sporting events; at community pools; in retail stores; in university classrooms, dining halls and dormitories; in parking lots; and on the sidewalk, among other places,” the authors wrote.

These spaces are often racialized as white, and some white people call the police to keep that order, steps rooted in a post-slavery United States where law enforcement was used to carry out the separation of white and black people, the academics said in a joint interview.

“Jogging while black. Walking while black. Exercising while black. Reading while black. Whatever it might be,” said Ms. Jefferson-Jones, who is also interim director of the black studies program at her university. “The idea is that you are doing it in the wrong place and that it’s others who get to decide what your place is and where your place ought to be.”

By the time the police arrived at the Ramble on Monday morning, Ms. Cooper and Mr. Cooper were gone. “Had the police arrived, it’s very likely that Christian Cooper would have been arrested,” Ms. Jefferson-Jones said.

Mr. Roberts, the Columbia professor who recalled being profiled while walking his Rottweiler, did not avoid the police. He remembered the sound of screeching tires. “This cop car comes squealing around the corner,” said Mr. Roberts, 47, in an interview on Wednesday. “The police jumped out of the car with their hands on their weapons.”

He said, “It was one of the scariest moments of my life.”

He said he had so many similar instances of neighbors calling the police he finally reached out to the campus police and the local precinct to let them know he was a black man who walked his dog frequently.

“The most awkward conversation you can have with a police officer is diplomatically explaining you’re afraid they will shoot you,” said Mr. Roberts.

He recalled how he talked to officers about one woman in particular who he had a confrontation with because his dog was leashed and her dog was not. The police asked him if he was afraid of her. “Am I physically afraid of this older white woman, no?” he said he told them.

But, he said in the interview, she did wield a weapon: “She has a phone.”

Jo Corona and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.