[Editors Note: I wanted to have a serious discussion about racial profiling on this blog for some time now. That said, I couldn’t have done as well with this topic as my brother from another mother Eddie Blue-Eyes of the blog [un]Common Sense. Added to this post is what I think to be a video of a very good discussion on this subject.]
The most dysfunctional aspect of the almost non existent national dialog on race is that it is almost always filtered through the narrow lens of individualism. This serves to leave out any discussion of practices rooted in centuries-long systemic racism that benefits whites and excludes people of color. In this way, the core issue of racism — how it is deeply embedded in our social institutions — is left out of any meaningful public discussion. In this way, the arrest of a prominent academic (in his own home) is seen only from an individual perspective, severed from its social context. Our national dialog on race is similar to communication in families plagued by addiction: no one dares speak about “Daddy’s problem” because of fear and shame. As in such families, a destructive dysfunction is maintained by its denial.
Conservatives contend that liberal indulgence has been the cause for black crime in America. This is utterly astonishing considering it has come after decades of a historically unprecedented increase in the incarceration of black Americans. A conservative-dominated era marked by efforts by legislators and courts to “get tough on crime” and drugs in the inner city. Those who read me are by now familiar with the sickening numbers: almost one in ten black men aged twenty-five to twenty-nine was in prison at the start of the twenty-first century, compared to one white in ninety. Between the mid 1980s and the mid 1990s, the number of black men sentenced to prison for drug offenses increased by more than 700 percent.
This conservative disconnect between the idea that blacks have been absolved of personal responsibility by guilt-ridden, namby-pamby liberals and the reality of nearly thirty years of increasing harshness to black offenders suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the conservative argument.
The problem of black urban crime is arguably the ugliest, most emotional, aspect of the debate about race in America today. Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing on during the neoconservative ascension during the Reagan years (and accelerating during the 1990s), white and conservative commentators felt blacks lost the high moral ground. During this time the image of the brave little black girl walking up to a schoolhouse door in the face of jeering white crowds was replaced by fearsome (“wilding”) young black men coming down the street ready to take your wallet or your life. That transformation of black youth from victims of injustice to sociopathic predators fueled public policies that quietly reduced funding for education and other beneficial programs and funneled those resources into the service of creating a prison/ industrial complex historically unparalleled by any enlightened society.
Conservatives downplay racism (except, apparently, when it comes to appointing wise Latina women Supreme Courts judges) pointing out that victim surveys do show that victim of violent crime, including black victims, describe their perpetrators as being disproportionately black. Following this wave of research, many conservatives suggest that racism has nothing to do with the disproportionate number of black arrests. However, victim surveys cannot be legitimately be used to dismiss the fact that the criminal justice system is free of bias. They tell us nothing of how blacks are treated before incarceration, for example. More concisely, victim surveys alone cannot explain why the number of black men sentenced to prison for drug offenses increased by more than 700 percent in the ten-year period of 1985-1995, or why 80 percent or more of incarcerated drug offenders in seven states are black.
Recent research makes it clear that aggressive police behavior toward minorities cannot be explained away simply as a result of higher rates of black crime. A study of police stops of civilians in New York City, for example, done for the New York State attorney general’s office (Flynn, 1999), found that over a fifteen-month period in 1998 and 1999, blacks were stopped by police six times as often as whites were, and Latino/as, four times as often. Blacks made up about 25 percent of the city’s general population but 50 percent of the people stopped by the police. Whites made up 43 percent of the population but just 13 percent of civilians stopped by the police. Blacks were stopped considerably more than they were arrested, whites less so.
In fact, the scientific evidence on patterns of discriminatory police practices show that it is consistent and long-standing. Evidence from a variety of sources has shown for decades that such discrimination is systemic and widespread, even in police departments that are generally considered to be highly professional. Indeed, those discriminatory practices are not only tolerated but also frequently justified as good police work by the police themselves. Those practices, however, are often the initial steps in a process through which people of color, and minority youth of color specifically, are funneled into the maws of a criminal justice system.
In a classic observational study, markedly different treatment for black youth were found, even in departments widely known for the superior quality of its personnel. Especially minor offenses (situations where officers hold a great deal of discretion in deciding which actions to take) the police were much more likely to give blacks the tougher dispositions and less likely to release them outright. The researchers discovered that the most crucial factor in the police officer’s decisions was based on cues inferred from the youth’s character: “Older youths, youths with well-oiled hair, black jackets, Negroes, and soiled jeans… ” and boys who in their interactions with officers did not exhibit “what were considered to be appropriate signs of respect” tended to receive the most severe treatment and dispositions (Piliavin & Briar, 1964).
More recent work suggests that similar patterns prevail today, even after decades of efforts in some jurisdictions to improve the racial record of police. Newer research (Conley, 1999) reconfirms that black and Latino/a neighborhoods are more likely to be the focus of heavy police monitoring and surveillance to begin with, and that black and Latino/a youth are more likely to be defined by police as threatening and insubordinate, more likely to be stopped under various (and often false) pretexts, more likely to be arrested than to receive a warning, less likely to have charges dropped by the police (Human Rights Watch, 1996).
There is supportive evidence from some recent research that police are well aware of these racially structured practices but that they often defend them on one or more related grounds. On the one hand, police still operate under a peculiar form of circular reasoning that tends to reify the black stereotypes that were common over a generation ago. Since minority youth are more statistically more likely to be carrying weapons or dealing drugs on the street, the line of reasoning goes, why would police not concentrate their limited resources on them?
But the consequence of this reasoning, of course, is to exacerbate the very differences that are invoked to justify racially targeted practices in the first place. This in turn reinforces the public’s image of the gun-toting drug dealer or gang banger as black or Latino/a. And this confirms the validity of the police focus on youth of color, which then goes around and around in the same kind of vicious circle described in studies over forty years ago.
It’s all an exercise in tautology. In other words, By largely confining surveillance and searches to blacks and Latino/as, police authorities ensure that most of the people arrested for transporting guns or drugs on the freeways, for example, are black or Latino/a. This, of course, further validates the disproportionate focus on minority drivers. “To the extent that law enforcement agencies arrest minority motorists more frequently based on stereotypes,” a report mentions, they continue to “generate statistics that confirm higher crime rates among minorities which, in turn, reinforces the underpinnings of the very stereotypes that gave to the initial arrests” (Human Rights Watch, 1996).
This vicious cycle was escalated during the 1990s with injunctions that allowed police to target youths, often in ambiguous terms, as gang members if they so much as stopped to talk to a friend on the street. At one point, the county of LA outlawed so many colors, it was discovered the colors of the flag were illegal (Davis, 1992). This escalation has certainly been a major factor in the role of the police in the school-to-prison pipeline — the shunting minority of youth into the criminal justice system. One study in a California County widely known for its extensive white drug-using counterculture found that 93 percent of youth sent to juvenile court for the offense of “possession of narcotics or controlled substances for sale” in the 1990s were Latino/a. Of youth and adults arrested in 1998 in California for the recently enacted offense of “participating in a street gang,” only 13 percent were white and non-Latino/a; almost 67 percent were Latino/a alone.
It follows then, that race still helps to determine who will enter the formal justice system in the first place and thus shapes what will happen thereafter. And what the research shows clearly is how persistent racial stereotyping works with long-term structural disadvantages to ensure that blacks wind up more often in the criminal justice system. It is well-known that adverse structural disadvantages cause blacks to have higher rates of offenses to begin with. The higher rates of offenses are then used as a justification for closer police monitoring of minority youths and by courts to sentence them more severely. The levels of incarceration serve to undermine black communities, as the collateral consequences of incarceration include obstacles to employment, education, and housing, which increases the risks of re-offending and higher rates of recidivism.
Conservatives fail to recognize the destructive effects of that cycle, mostly because they deny that there are structural reasons for high black crime rates. According to the conservative mindset, blacks are congenitally more prone to a criminal mentality. In this way, it’s deemed perfectly appropriate to stop a well-dressed black professional. And if he becomes “insurbodinate (read: “uppity”), it’s just as justified to arrest him.
Taken on its own merits — divorced from its social context — the Gates arrest doesn’t seem like much. I know some black people who express their belief that the incident had nothing or very little to do with race. However, placed within its social context, Gates’ arrest had a lot more to do about race than we care to admit as a society. Surveys show that at an overwhelming number of black men admit to being racially profiled at some point in their lives (Fausset & Huffstutter, 2009 ). I know Gates has experienced this as has our President. Almost all my darker-skinned friends have been targets. There is a strong conservative push to deny racism in our lives. And that, my friends, is a huge part of the problem.
Conley, D. (1999). Being black, living in the red: Race, wealth, and social policy in America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Davis, M. (1992). City of quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books.
Fausset, R., & Huffstutter, P. J. (2009 July 25). Black males’ fear of racial profiling very real, regardless of class. Los Angeles Times.
Flynn, K. (1999, December 1). Racial bias shown in police searches, state report asserts. New York Times, p. A1.
Human Rights Watch. (1996). Race and drug law enforcement. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Piliavin, I., & Briar, S. (1964). Police encounters with juveniles. American Journal of Sociology, 70(2), 206-214.