February 21, 2011

Cops Are Missing the Bad Guys While Profiling the Black Guys

The history of African Americans is one of great accomplishments amidst the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That legacy follows black people, and particularly black men, to this day. And it is enough to make you red-hot burning mad. Although some are ready to usher in a new post-racial era of colorblindness, it is clear that their efforts are grossly premature.

In America, race is a proxy for violence. Black men are regarded as a criminal element, and racial profiling is a practice that goes far beyond the justice system. It is culturally ingrained and normalized. In the days of old, when black people were not allowed to roam about unattended or without permission, slave patrols policed the plantations and hunted down fugitives.

Similarly, today, police sweep through communities of color, searching for criminals. Any black man will do. And cops are searching for drugs, not because black or Latino people use the most drugs, but because of preference, of policy. Drug use among white youth is greater than among youth of color, but you will never see the police descend upon the nation's college campuses, round up those who "fit the description" and force them to endure a demeaning arrest. After all, society views them as the victims. Society has already decided who should be designated as its criminals, even if the "suspects" are as innocuous and upstanding as Henry Louis Gates -- a Harvard professor who was arrested for standing on his front porch and attempting to enter his own home. But status is not what counts; it's all about race.

Twelve Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America Today is a new book which tells the first-person accounts of black men who, like Professor Gates, have been there. These twelve men were victims of racial profiling, at the wrong place at the wrong time -- which for a black man could mean anywhere. Edited by Gregory S. Parks and Matthew W. Hughey, Twelve Angry Men contains a powerful introduction by Harvard law professor Lani Guinier.

A diverse group of people shares their encounters with the police, including a New York Times reporter who was detained while on assignment; Joe Morgan, a baseball legend who was racially profiled at LAX; Joshua T. Wiley, a hip hop artist who is constantly harassed by police, and Paul Butler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor who was stopped by the cops for living in a nice neighborhood. Meanwhile, Byron Bain, a Harvard Law student, was told by his arresting officer that he must attend the school on a "ball scholarship." Bain compiled a tragically comical "Bill of Rights for Black Men," which includes as its first and second amendments, "Congress can make no law altering the established fact that a black man is a n****r," and "The right of any white person to apprehend a n****r will not be infringed." Newly arrived, foreign-born black men with British accents are not immune from profiling and arrest. Even lawmakers are not exempt, as Congressman Danny Davis recounts his experience of racial profiling by the Chicago police while driving home from his weekly radio show.

Throughout the book, which is factual yet reads like a novel, these twelve men share the humiliation of being told that you are not allowed in a certain neighborhood, and the terror that comes with having a gun pointed to your head. Told where they can and cannot go and forced to produce their identification, they compare their experiences to antebellum slaves, black South Africans under apartheid, and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. One man, who was stopped at least once a month and as many as three times, had to leave home early enough in order to account for the possibility of being stopped. Perhaps one of the more appalling cases was of a boy in Prince George's County, Maryland, who was accused of shoplifting by a police officer moonlighting as a department store security guard. The guard made the youth take off his shirt, go home and return with his sales receipt to prove that he purchased it. The young man was awarded $850,000 in damages by a federal jury.

Although much of Twelve Angry Men deals with the anecdotal and the personal, the book also delves into the statistical, including a report on racial profiling as practiced by the New York Police Department. According to the report, which was released by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), race, not crime, drives police stops and frisks. This is what blacks and Latinos have been saying for years. And no matter what the neighborhood -- low crime or high crime, black, Latino, white or mixed, the results are always the same.

For example, 80 percent of the stops made by the NYPD between 2005 and 2008 were of African Americans, who are only 25 percent of the city's population. Whites, who make up 44 percent of the city's population, were stopped only 10 percent of the time. Over the past six years, nearly half of all stops were made on the basis of a vague category called "furtive movements," while only 15 percent cited "fits relevant description." In over half of the stops, the officers noted "high crime area" as an "additional circumstance," even in low crime areas.

"CCR has been litigating against the NYPD's racial profiling and suspicionless stops-and-frisks since 1999. For its part, during all this time, the police have claimed that they stop people based upon reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, based upon a description of a perpetrator, and as an effective tool to get guns off the street," Vincent Warren, CCR's executive director, recently told me. "The significance of this report is that New York City must finally come to grips with its racial profiling problem. There are hundreds of thousands of innocent Black and Brown New Yorkers who daily suffer the indignities of these illegal police tactics. And the police department should be protecting them and not harassing them."

Reading Twelve Angry Men made me angry, not because the subject matter was brand new to me, but because it was far too familiar -- not only as a black man, but also as a human rights advocate who worked with police brutality victims and their families back in the 1990s and decided to go to law school as a result. Whether or not racial profiling is a new subject for you, this book should spark some discussions. And bringing this problem into the light is the only way we can begin to fight it. Black folks are not the only victims of racial profiling, to be sure. But examining America's badge of slavery is a good place to start.

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