Racial Profiling Cases: Is Racial Profiling Still An Issue?


Regardless of what side you come down on regarding the recent incident involving the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, it is one of those racial profiling cases that has propelled the issue back into the minds of average Americans. Gates, a prominent Harvard professor, was arrested in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and charged with disorderly conduct after a neighbor called the police and reported that two men were trying to break into Gates’ home. Professor Gates and his driver were actually trying to open a door, which was stuck.

Racial profiling cases involve the use of race or ethnicity characteristics to decide whether an individual is likely to engage in criminal conduct or commit a certain illegal act. In the United States, it is estimated that as many as 32 million people have been victimized by acts of racial profiling. The American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) and The Rights Working Group released a report, in June 2009, entitled, “The Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States”.

The report reveals that factual data and personal accounts point to minorities, especially Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans as more likely to be followed, stopped, or searched at a disproportionate rate compared to the rest of the population. In every area of their lives, whether worshiping, playing, traveling or shopping, minorities are unfairly subjected to racial profiling based on subjective elements of their racial or ethnic make-up, rather than any proof of illegal activity.

Following are the experiences and thoughts of three African American men regarding racial profiling cases: 

Anthony is an undergraduate at one of America’s premier private universities. He’s walking through the corridors of the school’s business management building, when a middle-aged White woman, who was probably a school administrator, asked, “Can I help you with something?” Anthony immediately detected that unmistakable tone of “What is this Black guy doing here” in her voice.  He responded, “I’m fine.” The lady walked away in such a way that told him she was going to get the “authorities.” Another woman approached Anthony; she asks “Are you here for the interview?”

            “No,” Anthony replied, and she moved on. The next person who approached him was a male. He questioned Anthony for what seemed like five minutes about his reason for being in the building.  It occurred to Anthony that his experience would fit the pattern of any number of racial profiling cases reported by other minority students. “Do you stop everyone in the building and interrogate them?” he asked.  He explained to the person that he was a student. However, it did not occur to any of them to ask Anthony, a Black male dressed in bagging clothing, to show them his student identification card. 

It seems everyone Anthony encountered automatically assumed that he could not possibly be a student at this prestigious school.  Anthony said that he was “humiliated” by their assumption that based on his appearance he did not belong in the building.  Moments after he exited the building, he was stopped by a campus police, who immediately called on his radio for back-up. By the time the second squad arrived, he was already being questioned by the first police officer. 

Anthony gave the officer his school ID card and a call was made to verify the card. He then told the police he felt he was “being profiled,” the officer apologized, and explained that he was just doing his job as he handed the ID card back to Anthony. To Anthony, racial profiling cases are alive and well.

James is a thirty-four-year-old who recently received his Ph.D. in business management. He is as well-versed in “underground   literature” as he is in his chosen field of business expertise. “Racial profiling is as prevalent as it’s ever been,” and most racial profiling cases never get reported. It is so ingrained into the fabric of the system that it may seem normal to the victim.  James recalls his last encounter with the police.

He was talking on his cell phone to a friend as he was trying to get directions as he drove to the Black Expo in Indianapolis in July 2008. The unmistakable roar of police sirens caused him to look up into his rear view mirror in time to see flashing red and blue lights as the police car pulled up behind him. James pulled his 2004 Toyota 4-Runner over to the side of the road.  The police officer approached his door and officer asked James for his license, registration and proof of insurance. He told James he was being stopped for “cell phone use while driving.”

James handed him the documents; the officer went back to his vehicle and waited in his squadron. He’s probably running my name and tags through the system to check for warrants, James surmised. The police officer returned to the SUV and handed him his license and other documents. He then gave James the ticket and explained that the fine could be paid by mail. James went on his way thinking how professional, polite, but firm the police officer had been.

Usually, James is very suspicious of the justice system and can recount the top racial profiling cases from memory. However, having a couple of friends who are police officers helps him to fully appreciate and respect the authority of police who are honestly trying to serve and protect the community. He has no problem paying the fine for his traffic violation. Although he believes that the president was “baited” into making personal comments on the Gates case, James admits that the truth regarding some racial profiling cases may sometimes be closer to a “clash of egos” than actual racial profiling.

Ron is a retiree who grew up in the South, but he has lived in a large Midwestern city for most of his adult life. He is planning on riding his motorcycle on a leisurely trip to Atlanta in the near future. Ron says, racial profiling is less obvious, “especially since public awareness has been heightened to the issue.  He recalls a few years ago when somewhat blatant displays of racial profiling cases were taking place in a small suburb outside of Chicago.

On a fairly regular basis, the local police would set up “seat belt enforcement zones” along the route where many African Americans, coming from the city to go to the local skating rink, exit from the expressway. When people complained to city officials, and threatened to sue, the road checks were stopped. Ron feels that attitudes change, just “not fast enough.” He states that people, minorities and Whites have to be diligent in addressing racial profiling cases.  Ron went on to say that even though the case may end up not fitting the mode of racial profiling cases, “Professor Gates may have ended up in handcuffs and jail because he was Black.”

Racial profiling cases are actually on the upswing, particularly since September 11, 2001. Although most racial profiling cases are associated with public streets or highways, it can occur in any type of setting.

            To maneuver your way through issues of racial profiling, it is important to remember to remain calm and polite, even if you feel you have been stopped unjustly, and:

1)         You should know what your rights are. For example, you do not have to give the police permission to search your vehicle. Remember remain calm and always be polite.

2)         Never argue or make any sudden movements. Some police may try to threaten or intimidate you and initiate an argument. You can control the tone of the situation.

3)         If you are stopped, you are allowed to record the badge number, squad number and license number. Also, write down details of the incident, like date, time, location, and other related information.

4)         If you feel you have been unfairly targeted, file a complaint or contact a civil rights organization to get some advice.

Landers is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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