One message on the web forum asked neighbors to be on the lookout for “two young African Americans, slim, baggy pants, early 20s.” Another warned of a “light skinned black female” walking her dog and talking on her cellphone.America seems to be full of people who spend all their time peering out their windows in a fog of suspicion, fearful of anyone they don't know and especially anyone of the wrong color.
“I don’t recognize her,” the post read. “Has anyone described any suspect of crime like her?”
These postings appeared on the Oakland forums of Nextdoor.com, a website intended to be a virtual neighborhood hangout for the tens of thousands of neighborhoods and hundreds of local police departments that use it to communicate with residents. The site’s chief executive and co-founder, Nirav Tolia, describes it as a place to find a babysitter, a plumber or a missing cat, and to have a “kind of ‘Leave It to Beaver’ chatter.”
But people also use it to report suspected crimes. And as Nextdoor has grown, users have complained that it has become a magnet for racial profiling, leading African-American and Latino residents to be seen as suspects in their own neighborhood.
A few years ago in my safe, boring suburban neighborhood we had a great example of this. The county had built a new school, and there was no sidewalk down the other side of the street it was on. At that time the federal government had a program to fund the construction of sidewalks near schools, so the county could have gotten the sidewalk built for free. They also had an easement already in place, written into the deeds of this subdivision. But when they held a public meeting dozens of people showed up to protest. According to a friend of mine who was there, most were worried that the sidewalk would entice dangerous strangers to walk down the street. "We've already got enough criminals around here," said one, "we don't need any more." So the county gave up.