In 1954, in a case called Brown vs. the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in the American educational system. Thanks to the long, hard work of the civil rights movement, a series of laws passed during the 1960s dismantled much of the officially sanctioned racism in the U.S. legal system. It looked like the days of Jim Crow - the laws that made racial discrimination legal in the American South - were over.
But today, a new kind of systematic racism is alive and well in U.S. law enforcement: racial profiling. Consider these stories:
"Two officers in police cruisers, followed George Washington and Darryl Hicks, both African American men, as they drove into the parking garage of the hotel where they were staying in Santa Monica. The men were ordered out of the car at gun point, handcuffed and placed in separate police cars while the officers searched their car and checked their identification. The police justified this detention because the men allegedly resembled a description of two suspects being sought for 19 armed robberies and one of the men seemed to be 'nervous.' The men filed suit against the officers and the court found that neither man fit the descriptions of the robbers, and that the robberies had not even occurred in the City of Santa Monica."
There are so many stories like this, it's hard to choose examples. Some of these stories have worse endings, with people shot by police for no reason. All over the U.S., the police stop and harass people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, at a much greater rate than they do whites. The phenomenon is so widespread and well-known that people have come up with a phrase to describe it: "Driving While Black or Brown." It's a play on the police term "Driving While Intoxicated."
Right now, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating 14 police departments for civil rights violations, including Charleston, West Virginia, Riverside, California, Orange County, Florida, Prince George' s County, Maryland, Eastpointe, Michigan, New Orleans, Buffalo, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Behind racial profiling lies a vicious circle of racism. The news media, particularly T.V. news, represent criminals as black or brown and black or brown people as criminals. People learn to think of lawbreakers, particularly drug users and dealers, as primarily nonwhite, even though that's simply not true. One study of T.V. news and its viewers in Los Angeles showed that people were so used to thinking of criminals as black that they tended to remember a crime as committed by an African American even when a news report hadn't specified anyone's race.
Because of these racist ways of thinking, police stop and question people of color in disproportionate numbers. And because of that, the percentages of people of color actually arrested and convicted of crimes becomes higher. So people believe that criminals are black or brown. . . and the cycle goes on.
This vicious circle got particularly bad in the early 1980's, when crack cocaine became widespread in the U.S., President Ronald Reagan declared a "war on drugs," and people began to associate crack sales and use with urban-dwelling African Americans. With the declaration of a "war on drugs," many law enforcement agencies from the Federal level down explicitly wrote racist practices into their policies, instructing officers to be suspicious of "ethnic groups" associated with drugs. Hence the term "racial profiling."
Police departments around the country have made two kinds of arguments about racial profiling. The first is a simple denial: we don't discriminate. Studies and lawsuits have revealed that they do. The second is that racial profiling is justified by crime statistics. It's not -- and the second argument, which admits to racial profiling, contradicts the first!
One of the most famous cases of rampant racial profiling and police denial has been the case of the case of the New Jersey State Police. For years, officers within the NJ State Police, as well as ordinary people, said that state troopers were harassing people of color. Statistics in 1994 and 1995 showed that while African Americans made up only 13.5% of the drivers along a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, they constituted 46.2% of drivers stopped by police in that area! In the mid-1990s, the agency's own internal investigations showed systematic racial profiling, and an investigator recommended serious reforms. But in 1996, the superintendent of State Police responses to that recommendation with a memo that said "No!" to attempts to reform the force.
Then, in April of 1998, New Jersey state troopers shot at a van full of teenagers for no good reason, wounding three of the four unarmed black and Latino kids in the van. The shooting brought racial profiling to the national news, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a lawsuit against the New Jersey State Police.What can you do about racial profiling?
If you've been harassed by police because of the color of your skin, report it to the ACLU; if there's a civil lawsuit being brought against police in your state, you can join it. Write an email message to your friends telling them to do the same.
Write to your congressperson saying that you support the recent recommendations of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission: private citizens should be able to bring civil cases against police departments (as it is, only the Justice Dept. can do that); police officers should be fired right away for participating in racial profiling, and they should be individually liable for their actions.
You can also help break the vicious cycle of racism by talking and writing about how stereotypes of African Americans and Latinos as criminals aren't true. (Five times as many drug users are white as are black!) Do some research about crime statistics, and write a message to your friends explaining how these stereotypes are false, and how they hurt ordinary people.
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