When we think of racial profiling, we generally think of a person of color, perhaps a black or Latino man or woman, in a car who gets stopped by police based on skin color. Often, a minor traffic infraction, like failing to signal when changing lanes, provides the legal rationale for such racially-motivated stops.
Most Americans understand why this is wrong. However, the role that race plays in the criminal justice system goes far beyond this type of profiling.
The Washington Post featured a June essay called “Five Myths about Americans in Prison” that examined the role of race in incarceration. Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, and David Cole, a Georgetown law professor, showed that people of color are not only stopped more frequently by police, but their communities receive far more attention from police.
When black men are arrested, they’re also often charged and prosecuted differently than whites.
Mauer and Cole attempt to dispel the myth that there is a disproportionate number of black people in prison because they commit more crimes. They point out that whites and African Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates, but black men were almost 12 times as likely to go to prison as White men in 2003. Although black people are 12% of the population and 14% of drug users, according to Mauer and Cole, they comprise 34% of those arrested for drug offenses and 45% of those incarcerated in state prisons for such offenses.
Both experts attribute the disparities in incarceration rates in part to the way urban black communities are policed.
“Police find drugs where they look for them,” they wrote. “Inner-city, open-air drug markets are easier to bust than those that operate out of suburban basements. And numerous studies show that minorities are stopped by police more often than whites.”
To understand the over-incarceration of black people, one must take a good hard look at how black communities are policed.
When I worked as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in Newport News, Va., it was immediately obvious to me that the city’s East End — a low-income black urban community — was over-policed. Whenever I drove into the East End, it seemed that I couldn’t drive more than a couple of blocks without encountering a police car.
I could drive miles in another part of the city without running into an officer. Once on a police ride-a-long, the officer I rode with pulled over a black woman who had stopped along the double-yellow line to let her grandson out to attend an afterschool program.
The officer, a white male, slammed on the brakes, hopped out and asked for her drivers’ license. When she complied, he ran the license through a crime database to see if she had any outstanding warrants.
When I asked the officer why he stopped the woman, he said that it was illegal to stop in the middle of the street to let someone out. I can’t imagine that in one of the wealthier and whiter areas of the city that an older white woman would be stopped and detained under similar circumstances.
The saturation of police in the East End helped me gain a better understanding of how low-income urban black communities are policed.
To focus law enforcement efforts on one or two racial groups while limiting scrutiny and arrests of another is theoretically illegal — a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Fifth Amendment’s protection from abuse by government authority. But subjecting communities of color to differential treatment goes on daily despite those constitutional protections.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the New York Police Department’s latest data from the first quarter of 2011 shows police still stop and frisk African Americans at far higher rates than they do whites with their odious stop-and-frisk law. Some 50.6% of the 183,326 who were frisked were black in the first three months of the year, although African Americans comprise just 23% of the city’s population.
Ironically, whites are more likely to be found with illegal drugs or weapons than blacks or Latinos – when they’re subject to equal scrutiny. Profiling is the starting place for this disparate treatment.
Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be charged, tried and convicted than their white counterparts for the same offenses. And money is perhaps the crucial factor in determining whether you get adequate legal help.
As a starting place to deal with this bias, the Rights Working Group is calling for passage of the End Racial Profiling Act and recommending that the Department of Justice Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies be made enforceable. To find out more, visit http://www.rightsworkinggroup.org.
Keith Rushing is a veteran journalist who has worked at some of the nation’s largest daily newspapers for more than 20 years. He was raised working class in Queens, N.Y. , where he attended public school, and is a husband and father. Keith is also communications manager of the Rights Working Group.