Racial Profiling

Blacks and Whites experience the world differently.

Posted Jun 07, 2012

I grew up in Brooklyn, in the 73rd police precinct, which covers parts of Brownsville and East New York. As a teenager I commuted to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

These two bits of my childhood—the neighborhood and school—figured in a story aired recently on WNYC, which reported that kids between 14 and 18 were stopped by police nearly 8,000 times in a four-block section of Brownsville in 2011. During the same period, within a three-block radius around Stuyvesant High School police stopped teens about 20 times last year. In other words, if you are a teenager, it is 400 times more likely you will be stopped in Brownsville than around Stuyvesant.

Does this mean that if I were a teenager today, I would be stopped on a regular basis by the police in my old neighborhood but probably would not be stopped by a cop near my high school?

Probably. I am white. Today the 73rd Precinct is close to 100% black and Hispanic. It is also the highest crime area of the city. But being white would probably give me a free pass, even in Brownville. I don’t fit the criminal profile by virtue of being white, dressing white and ‘acting’ white.

By contrast, Stuyvesant High School, one the country’s elite public schools, is 96% Asian and white and is in a low crime area. So I would also be free of police harassment there. The profile I fit is as described by a current Stuyvesantian, Benedict Bolton, who said “We’re a bunch of, to be honest, skinny white kids.”

Complicating the matter, though, is that in Brownsville there is a lot of crime, a lot of African-Americans and Hispanics. Around Stuyvesant there isn’t much crime and there aren’t many African-Americans.

Is this a problem? One argument is that there is nothing wrong with this racial disparity in stops and frisks. Cops stop kids who look like trouble in a crime-riddled community, defenders say. While it is undoubtedly profiling, it is justifiable profiling, the argument continues, based in a reality.

Black students see the matter differently. This is from the WNYC report:

Tyari Jenkins, a 14-year-old African-American student at Teachers Preparatory High School, said he has been stopped and frisked three times." The first time was as a 12-year-old, when he was barely five feet tall, he said. He had been walking out of his home to his friend’s house across the street.

“ When I looked up, I see the cop. He was like, 'You,' and I was like, 'Me?”' He said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Tyari recalled. “ ‘He said, 'Empty your book bag,' and I was like, 'Okay,' and I was taking my time. Then he said, 'You need to hurry up.' And he started emptying my book bag and dropped my stuff on the ground."

The officers asked for an ID. Tyari said he left his at home, so the officers hauled him back home across the street and asked his mother to identify him. After a few minutes, they left.

Tyari said he’s never been arrested for anything. Neither have any of the other Brownsville kids who shared their stories. They are now 14 years old, and all of them have been stopped by police between two and seven times. http://www.wnyc.org/articles/wnyc-news/2012/may/29/city-teenagers-say-st...

Racial profiling isn’t confined to New York and its police department. Racial profiling is a fact of life for young African-Americans. This spring I taught at an historic black university, Claflin, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. I asked my students how many of them had been stopped by the police. Thirteen of the fifteen had encounters with the police. These aren’t students with hoodies or pants falling down below their rears; it is hard to see them as anything but typical young people, all of whom are college students.

Most Claflin students have been stopped by the police multiple times. All stops were on the highways (by state troopers, mostly white), not on the local streets (where the sheriff and many deputies are black).

The most recent and graphic story told in class involved a female on her way home from work. When pulled over by a state trooper and asked for identification, she reached for the company nametag that hung around her neck. The trooper reached for his gun and held it against her chest. In this instance, you don’t need to be a black male to pose a threat; being black is enough.

Two times, three times, more times than one could remember: that’s how many times the students had been pulled over. While a few stops resulted in traffic tickets, most did not. One student, a scholarship athlete who aspires to be a chef, said he expects that he will wind up in prison one day for no reason other than being black.

My student’s prediction isn’t paranoia but only a slightly exaggerated reflection of a statistical reality. A 2001 report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 32 percent of black males born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetime. (17.2 percent of Hispanics and 5.9 percent of whites born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison.)

Equally as unsettling as the statistic is the matter-of-fact way my student forecast his future. For him it was as inevitable as diabetes—many he knew would contract it and would ultimately prove life-threatening.

Add to this pessimistic realism the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy and we begin to understand the seemingly intractable nature of the discrepancies between African-Americans the rest of hyphenated America.

The Supreme Court, in Brown v Education, declared that separate could never be equal. Sadly, today black and white/Asian/Hispanic America still live in separate realities. How can the gap be closed? How can the separation become participation?

I have no policy solutions to propose. But I do suggest that the dual realities of the races be acknowledged. I once had a well-meaning friend say that it was about time that African-Americans get over it. Slavery ended a century and a half ago; legal segregation ended a generation ago, he pointed out. How long can innocent whites be held responsible for the sins of their ancestors?

I think these are the wrong questions. They will get us nowhere. As every ethical system posits, it is necessary first to put yourself in another’s shoes. This is a good way to begin. We have hardly started.

Brownsville and Stuyvesant, both in NYC, are worlds apart. These two parts of myself need to be reconciled.