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This editorial appeared in the March 11, 2019, edition of the Washington Post.

Earlier this month, a black college student in Boulder, Colorado, was picking up trash outside the university housing where he lives when a white police officer approached and questioned him, demanding identification. Within minutes, the officer had called for backup, which arrived in the form of patrol cars, and at least one policeman drew his weapon.

The encounter, recorded by another resident, ended without arrest or violence, thank heavens, and now the Boulder Police Department is investigating how things got so out of hand, given that the young man had every right to be where he was and to do what he was doing. (He apparently also works at the building.)

Whatever the outcome, the incident fits a pattern by now so familiar that it tends to elicit meager mainstream commentary. That's part of what's so insidious about ambient bigotry: in its quotidian ordinariness, it is too easily ignored yet no less outrageous, intolerable — or affronting to its victims.

And make no mistake, they are victims. The biggest and most memorable headlines may dwell on unwarranted shootings of black men, but the anger and alienation engendered by untold numbers of bloodless racial incidents are also scarring for black Americans, whether they are instigated by police, neighbors, passersby or anyone else.

The black graduate student at Yale University who was taking a nap in her dorm's common room last spring will not soon forget that a white student called the police to report her. The black teenager who was riding in a car with his white grandmother last fall won't forget being pulled over and handcuffed by police in Wisconsin after someone who saw them apparently reported a nonexistent robbery. The black hotel guest in Portland, Oregon, will long remember the sting and indignation of being asked to leave the premises by two white hotel employees while he stood in the lobby speaking by phone with his mother a few months ago.

Many Americans will forget those episodes. The victims will not.

There is nothing new about the racial animosity that gives rise to such abuses beyond the fact that they are more likely now to be recorded by phone cameras and posted for all to see. That doesn't make the incidents any more (or less) galling; it simply provides overwhelming evidence that what might once have been dismissed as anecdotal is in fact ubiquitous — even if President Donald Trump, no stranger to leveraging racial frictions for his own divisive purposes, is unlikely to take notice.

There may be more hope for Attorney General William Barr, who during his confirmation hearings in January asserted that the Justice Department retains a responsibility to scrutinize police departments when there is evidence to suggest a "pattern or practice" of racial discrimination. That was a break from his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, for whom heedlessness of routine bigotry was his stock in trade.

It would be nice to think that the exposure of day-in-day-out racism, documented ad nauseum on social media, would shame Americans into improved behavior. Failing that, there remains a role for the government — and the Justice Department, among others, should play its role.

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