Yo, is this Racist? Police Force Bias at NASA and Federal Government Checkpoints


Hello and welcome to the “Yo is this Racist?” podcast as part of the Comparative Studies 1100 course at The Ohio State University.

For this segment, I am your host, Tom Weber. I am currently a senior studying Aerospace Engineering and will be graduating next month at the time of this recording – so, May of 2021.

Today I want to discuss an instance of injustice in more depth that I have already covered briefly for my second Diary of Systemic Injustice entry – and so I’ll jump right into that.

In the Spring of 2018, I was fortunate enough to be an engineering intern for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly known as NASA.

I interned at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida from January of 2018 until May of that year. When entering the space center every morning for work, employees must drive through a guard station checkpoint that is staffed with Kennedy Space Center, more commonly referred to as KSC, police officers. The KSC police check employees’ identification, so their security badges that they have for the space center, before granting access to the space center, kind of similar to – you might think of military police or MPs at military bases, and how they check your IDs.

Occasionally at the checkpoints, either for reasons of suspicion or randomly, drivers are pulled aside to have a search performed of their vehicle.

During the second month of my internship at Kennedy Space Center, in February of 2018, an internal email was sent out to all NASA KSC employees detailing statistics on these searches being conducted at the KSC security checkpoints.

The data presented in the email made it glaringly obvious that people of color, specifically black men, were being pulled aside at the checkpoints for “random” – and you can’t see it but I’m using air quotes here – random searches. These drivers were shown in this data to be singled out at a much higher rate than other, predominantly white drivers, entering the space center.

The KSC police officers appeared, from the statistics presented in the email, to be singling out drivers based off the color of their skin.

So, this brings me back to the original question and title of this podcast – “Yo, is this racist?”

Obviously, the answer in this case is yes! No if ands or buts.

The Kennedy Space Center police officers were assuredly not conducting random searches and basing a vehicle search off a driver’s skin color was a flagrant misuse of their authority, which had been given to them by the federal government. So, the KSC police force is part of the federal government since it is contracted by a federal government agency, which is NASA, to do security for the premises of the facility. So that is worth noting, and I’ll get to that in a little bit.

The data of the vehicle searches presented in the email indicated that the racist policy utilized by the KSC police was a systemic issue within the entire police force. And that’s why I chose to write about it for my diary. I thought it was a really good example and something that I had experienced in my own life. This isn’t something really that you would see come to light, you know, in the general media since this was sent as an internal email within the government agency itself. So, I felt like that was a great example for this assignment.

By searching the vehicles of drivers based off their skin color, among other factors, the KSC police created a situation that is very relevant for discussion in this class as well as topical for current events in the United States – given the uprising for racial equality that occurred over this past summer of 2020 – for racial equality.

In class we discussed the One-Other dynamic discussed by both Hegel and de Beauvoir and it can be seen in this case, that the KSC police created a One-Other power dynamic establishing the driver as Other and themselves as One – which isn’t probably too difficult to see in this situation.

Now, you may argue that any driver that is being singled-out – you know anyone, not even if they’re being singled-out for the color of their skin or another factor, but any driver being randomly singled-out by the police is an Other in the KSC police officers’ eyes which could potentially be true in an isolated example of a police officer pulling over a driver. So, you know, your run-of-the-mill you didn’t stop at a stop sign and get pulled over – in that scenario, maybe.

However, already possessing the implicit racial bias – whether it be the specific police officer that is doing the traffic stop, or in the case of the KSC police, the entire force – would appear to make the specific target of the injustice – the singled-out driver who is the subject of an officers’ bias – the Other in the situation uniquely.

In other words, I would argue that only the subject of the bias is the Other in this situation of systemic injustice and the police officer as well as any other driver not being targeted by the officers’ racial bias is the One.

But, you know, there is also another way you might look at this and connect it to something we talked about in class. So, you might take it one step further even as far as trying to classify the singled-out driver – especially someone singled-out for the color of their skin – in this situation. Hopefully, you remember the idea of the subaltern and their voice (or rather their lack of a voice) when we discussed Spivak’s reading of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

A subaltern, as a refresher, is somebody who is so different from somebody else or potentially viewed to be lesser in terms of status or even intelligence – that they cannot be properly understood and are often described in terms and framed in a background that does not adequately or accurately encompass their life or culture. So, to put it concisely – they do not have a voice for all intents and purposes of this discussion, at least.

So back to the case here of a black man, for example, being “randomly” selected – and again I am deploying the air quotes – for a vehicle search by a Kennedy Space Center police officer. The officer has already decided, without the driver speaking or doing anything, that this person is deserving of an additional measure of security, based solely on this man’s skin color – and maybe the combination of being a male as well, but that’s a different discussion of intersectionality.

So, the person in this situation with power and authority, namely the police officer, has decided to act based off implicit bias and what they think of someone else without knowing or adequately understanding that person or allowing that person to speak for themselves. I think it seems as though the driver in this scenario, the black man that we’re using for our example – the racially singled out drivers shown in the email data, which was shown to be largely black men – may even be subalterns since the are not even capable of speaking for themselves. And so, in this proposal you would have the police officer at the guard gate of the space center as the One, the white or otherwise – you know not checking the bias boxes for the officers – as the other, and the singled-out drivers as subalterns. I mean, this is definitely an interesting thing to consider that would potentially be overlooked. So, it’s a point I wanted to bring up.

Something that I think is important to mention here is that many people think that systemic injustice in the United States, especially in the federal government, is a thing of the past.

The KSC police and their singling out of drivers is an example of systemic injustice present within a federal government agency – NASA is a government agency just like the FBI, TSA, or the postal service – as recently as 2018 – only 3 years ago.

And I am sure issues like this still plague various departments or agencies within the federal government. I say this, because how can meaningful change happen in society if the federal government that so many look to for guidance is plagued with the same issues?

To fully understand the nature of the issue here, too, I want to circle back to the institution of the guarded space center checkpoints in the first place. After all, they are not protecting UFOs and flying saucers at the centers … or are they?? – I don’t know.

The checkpoints were recommended to be implemented after the events of the September 11th attacks in 2001, as part of broad-sweeping heightened security measures at federal government installations in the US. With that in mind, it probably would not come as a surprise to hear that the checkpoints have also had a history of xenophobic actions in terms of searching the vehicles of anybody appearing foreign or of Middle Eastern origins – another obviously unacceptable misuse of authority. And there was a lot of that that happened after 9/11, especially targeting Muslims or those of Middle Eastern origins.

So I just wanted to give more background to the institution of these checkpoints in the first place – and they kind of had a history of this type of misuse of authority.

After the email was sent showing the injustice present within the KSC police force, a review board was formed to root out bias in the police force at Kennedy Space Center, as well as the checkpoints and corresponding security forces at all NASA centers across the country – there’s, I want to say, 15 to 20 NASA centers – I don’t remember off the top of my head, but these include Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX – you might all know this one from the movie Apollo 13 and Houston we have a problem – and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL in Pasadena, California – famous recently for the Mars Perseverance Rover.

And, you know, I’ll just conclude this by saying that:  While work is being done nationally to progress towards rooting out racial and other forms of bias, there is still much work to be done – I mean we saw that over the summer, just in American society, but including in the federal government itself – as exhibited here, with this case.

Anyways, that’s it for this segment “Yo, is this racist?” So, thank you for tuning in and have a great rest of your day.

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