Post tells familiar story: Yesterday morning’s Washington Post included a fascinating letter.
It came from a reader who became upset while reading a recent column by Ruth Marcus. Marcus’ column started like this:
MARCUS (11/16/14): Reginald Latson’s path to solitary confinement began four years ago as he waited for the public library to open in Stafford County, Va.According to Marcus, Reginald Latson, then 18, was wearing a hoodie as he waited for the library to open. His hoodie prompted a concerned citizen to telephone the police.
Latson, known as Neli, has an IQ of 69 and is autistic. Teachers and therapists describe him as generally sweet and eager to please.
He is also a black man, now 22, who on the day in question was wearing a hoodie—which prompted a concerned citizen to call police about a suspicious person loitering outside the library.
Four years later, Latson remains in jail, in solitary confinement. Marcus’ column concerns the way people with autism are treated by the law.
As a general matter, Marcus’ column may well make good suggestions. Still, one reader was disturbed by the role the hoodie played in this tale.
She wrote a letter to the Post. Eye-catching headline included, here’s what her letter said:
Punished for wearing hoodie while blackThis reader cried as she read about the young man who was “punished for wearing a hoodie while black.” Her letter appeared in yesterday’s Post. Plainly, the letter advances the assumptions Marcus encouraged at the start of her column.
I cried as I read the story of Reginald Latson in Ruth Marcus’s Nov. 16 op-ed column, “Cruel and unusual punishment for the autistic.” This tragedy began with a call to the police by a neighbor who deemed suspicious the sight of a black male wearing a hoodie waiting outside a library. What about this sight raised suspicion?
Was he wandering around the building in an apparent attempt to break in? Was he trying windows and doors? Was he trying to break a window? No. Apparently, a black male standing in front of a building in a hoodie is cause for suspicion.
Mr. Latson’s autism is characterized by rigid thinking and exaggerated fight or flight instincts. He attempted to flee when questioned by the police. He was placed in a choke hold and began to fight. Four years later, he’s incarcerated in solitary confinement—cruel and unusual punishment merely for being autistic.
As a black woman whose son, stepsons, nephews and friends’ children also wear hoodies and who wait in front of buildings, I also feel compelled to point out that one’s physical appearance should not be adequate cause for suspicion. We need to become a society ready to look beyond appearances to specific behavior.
What if the neighbor who made the ill-advised call had learned to look beyond a hoodie and a man’s skin color? The call might never have been made, and this person would instead have seen Mr. Latson peaceably enter the library when it opened. What if the dispatcher who responded to the call had asked more questions to determine whether Mr. Latson’s behavior or actions seemed suspicious? Perhaps the officers might never have been sent—and Mr. Latson would be spending his days at home.
Can people get punished for wearing a hoodie while black? Obviously, this narrative became familiar during the public discussion of the killing of Trayvon Martin. Marcus was ringing familiar bells at the start of her column.
Yesterday’s letter made us curious. What was the fuller story behind this incident, which dates to 2010?
Starting with yesterday’s letter, we began to click back through the reporting which has appeared in the Post. It gave us our latest lesson about an important question:
Where do narratives come from?
You can click back through that material too. Tomorrow, we’ll show you what we found when we did.