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Racial Profiling: Are We All Really Equal in the Eyes of the Law?

July 15, 2000 |
The phenomenon of police brutality and racial profiling is much more complicated that activists will admit.
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Maryland police, claiming that Liberian college student Nelson Walker wasn't wearing a seat belt, dismantled his car searching for drugs; hours later, having found none, they handed him a screwdriver, saying, "You're going to need this." For two hours, sans explanation, Florida police held up a vacationing black family while they dismantled their vehicle, searched their luggage and brought in a K-9 unit. It ended with physical searches, a mother made to lift her T-shirt. Then, only a warning for weaving. Black Omaha firefighter Ron Estes wasn't even driving when he ran afoul of police. He house-shopped in a new subdivision and spoke with a resident from his Blazer. The resident, who turned out to be a cop, reported him as suspicious and sent officers to the fire station to check him and his truck out. Estes, perhaps in an attempt to save the police time, changed his vanity registration plate from BSICBLK to SUSPECT.

These and far worse stories are offered by minorities and civil rights activists as incidents of racial profiling: law enforcement's official or unofficial, conscious or subconscious targeting of suspects on the basis of race. Blacks derisively refer to it as being guilty of "Driving While Black." State legislatures, Congress, the Justice Department and civil rights organizations have been flooded with similar testimonies. The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, is at the forefront of the war against racial profiling, a war the insurgents finally seem to be winning.

Five states have now passed legislation forbidding racial profiling and requiring that racial tracking data be gathered at every traffic stop. Similar legislation is pending in 25 others. Hundreds of police forces are gathering race, gender and reason-for-stop data on their traffic stops. Their statistics clearly point to the use of race as a proxy for criminality: Minorities are being singled out by law enforcement. Yet, nobody wants to fess up to it. Such resistance in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary underscores the complexity of race relations in America.

When Carl Williams, New Jersey's chief of troopers, said that "mostly minorities" trafficked in drugs, the uproar was such that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman sacked him. Soon after, she commendably released statistical evidence proving that racial profiling in her state was "real, not imagined." New Jersey had been, for five years, under a court ruling to that specific effect, yet Whitman described the evidence that activists spent years forcing her to provide as "not something [the state] had any reason to anticipate." The question of Whitman's sensitivity toward racial issues arose again last week when a 1996 photograph of her grinning while frisking a black man surfaced because of a lawsuit. The man was stopped for "suspicious activity" but was not arrested.

It's not just Whitman who has a hard time adding 2 + 2 when it comes to racial profiling. Disavowing the data as flawed, Rhode Island's state police commander ended one study when it showed exactly what activists claimed. California Gov. Gray Davis twice vetoed bills that required data collection. The one he recently signed formally prohibits racial profiling but only requires that motorists be given identification cards that includes phone numbers for lodging complaints.

Some resist because, even with data collection, questions remain as to exactly what the numbers mean. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report recently that concluded New York police use racial profiling. For example, blacks were 51% of those stopped and searched on Staten Island, a borough with a black population of 9%. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, as well as two commission members, dispute the report's conclusions.

Maybe a few more statistics will help them decide. Temple University Professor John Lamberth conducted a traffic study along the I-95 corridor north of Baltimore for the ACLU. He found that 93.3% of drivers committed traffic offenses and were thus eligible to be stopped by police. Of the violators, 17.5% were black, 74.4% white. Only 19.7% of those searched by police were white. On what basis were the vehicles they chose to stop, given that they can't stop all violators, chosen? Perhaps the entire nation could benefit from a refresher course on the law of probability.

Traveling internationally appears to be proof positive that blacks are dealing drugs: Why else would a black leave the country? According to the General Accounting Office, whites and blacks are equally likely to be smuggling drugs, and both sexes equally likely to be carrying them. Yet, black women are disproportionately frisked at customs and strip-searched nearly twice as often (three times more often than even black men). Black women are nine times more likely to be X-rayed after a pat-down but only half as likely to be smuggling. Since results do not explain what governs officials' choice of suspects, something else must.

The National Criminal Justice Commission also includes information on the racial makeup of the total offender pool in its findings, a crucial bit of information in gauging the fairness of our justice system. According to it, whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate, yet blacks were arrested on drug charges at five times the white rate. Blacks--12% of the population and 13% of monthly drug users--are 35% of arrestees, 55% of those convicted and 74% of those sent to prison for drug possession. Ninety percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses are either black or Latino. At this rate, two of every three black men between 18 and 34 years old will be on lock-down come 2020. Then we'll all be safe.

Even if it's true that minorities conduct more easily detected open-air drug transactions, there is still the thorny issue of selective enforcement. By the government's own reports, 80% of coke users are white, middle-class suburbanites. Given the uproar over government actions against the unusual suspects at Ruby Ridge and Waco, it's unclear how many suburban sting operations well-off white Americans would tolerate.

Given our tolerance for white drug dealing and using, it must be that America just feels safer when certain kinds of people are closely monitored and imprisoned in large quantities. That--the belief that it's "mostly minorities" who deal drugs--must be what drives a loving family man and good neighbor to humiliate an elderly black couple on their 40th anniversary, to dismantle a minivan while black toddlers howl, to threaten a career army man and his son with attack dogs for protesting, or to force a handcuffed black female executive to take laxatives in a room without a toilet that flushes; it offends what they "know" when black and brown people turn out to be just like them.

Doing street law clinics as law students, we were often told that police became angry when black youths they'd stopped turned out not to have records. "We'll fix that," they'd snarl as they wrote them up for disorderly conduct or the like. The next officer would find the police record that justified both his paycheck and his world view.

But what about minority policemen? A recent Justice Department survey reports that 51% of black officers think police treat whites better than blacks; only 12% of white officers agreed. Fifty-seven percent of black officers think police are more likely to use physical force against minorities than whites in similar situations; only 5% of white officers agreed. It's a truism among blacks that black cops are often the worst brutalizers.

The phenomenon of police brutality and racial profiling is much more complicated that activists will admit. After all, even Jesse Jackson admitted to being more afraid of a gaggle of young black men than young white ones. Inner-city residents resent police abuse yet have benefited the most from the lessening of street crime, nearly all of which was intraracial. Perhaps the ACLU should conduct a study of minority and minority police officers' intraracial attitudes, because racial stereotypes are not just ingrained in whites.

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