The Clemmie Carthans police brutality incident has put a spotlight on the longstanding controversy over racial profiling. The Young Democratic Socialists put up flyers in Bartlett calling it an “example of the police violence that is systematically employed against the black population under racist American capitalism, where all black youths are treated as potential criminals under the guise of the war on drugs.’” Those with other views see police as simply doing their job when they react to suspicious circumstances. There may not be a more highly charged and emotional issue facing our campus and our society right now.
The issue is whether or not police use the fact that blacks and Hispanics commit a higher percentage of crimes than whites. Racism exists in our culture and stopping someone purely because they are black or Hispanic is wrong, and these so-called “hard” stops should not be allowed.
However, what of the “soft” racial profiling that uses race as one among many other factors in assessing a situation? If highway police have been arresting many Mexican drug dealers smuggling marijuana in white vans at the border, is it not OK for police to stop a Hispanic-looking driver in a white Suburban driving in the area? It is undoubtedly certain that some cops do practice “soft” racial profiling, and law-abiding members of minority groups are understandably hypersensitive to it. We even see racial profiling all the time in popular culture. Dave Chappelle routinely lampoons it in his stand-up comedy, as do many movies such as the recent Barbershop.
Ideally in society, there should not be the perception that even “soft” racial profiling has any effect on arrests or traffic stops. The anger of minorities is legitimate and is also quick to flare up, as we’ve seen in the Carthans episode. Because of this anger, the police have been forced to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. At a meeting in February 2001 between then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and residents of Harlem, a woman stood up to complain that, “Drug dealers are allowed to stand outside of our houses every day and nothing’s done about it.” It must be incredibly difficult for a police officer to avoid even “soft” profiling in crime-ridden neighborhoods with a high minority population.
How are we to reconcile these facts with the police who want to “serve and protect”? I talked about racial profiling with a black Chicago Police officer who had worked in predominantly black neighborhoods. She explained that, “Anything with race has to do with a gray areanot every Spanish person is a dope dealer, but it becomes hard to deal with that fact if you work in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.” She went on to say that, “99 percent of us don’t stop people purely on the basis of their racewe are not perfect We don’t have time to think about that most of the time. We are going to say, This is what I saw,’ and I don’t have time to explain to someone that I didn’t stop them because of their race. I’m focusing on the crime.”
Racial profiling is wrong. The police know this, and we know this. Human nature, on the other hand, is something that is hard to change. It is unclear as to whether or not those officers stopped Carthans because he was black or because he was an older man meeting a younger girl at a late hour. Hopefully we will find out one way or another. We need the police to protect us from criminals of all races, and they do so to the best of their ability. We also need a society where minorities feel safe from unwarranted stops or searches. In the meantime, let’s step back to consider the caustic consequences of jumping to conclusions. That way, Carthans and the UCPD will both have the justice they deserve.