Privilege in profiling: one man’s experience
I probably deserve to be in jail right now. This past weekend, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was stopped and questioned by a police officer for trespassing in an abandoned building because I wanted to take some photographs. Was I in the wrong? Absolutely. Did I deserve every second of the 15-minute lecture I received from the officer about the dangers and liabilities I faced? Most likely. Did I learn my lesson? You certainly won’t catch me sketching around private property again in the name of art and adventure anytime soon.
As I was getting back in my car to drive home, the officer mentioned to me that if I had been “some kid from around here” (“here” being North St. Louis) instead of a Washington University student, he would have thrown me in jail for 48 hours. I would be writing this article from a City of St. Louis jail cell. But this article is not about me. I am not writing this to criticize the St. Louis Police Department—it has an incredibly difficult job and I have the utmost respect for it. I am also not writing this article to try and assert my own innocence—I am an idiotic college kid who did something stupid, and everything the officer said to me was completely justified. I am simply presenting this anecdote as a segue into a topic that is all too relevant but still mostly ignored in the United States today: racial profiling.
Just two days ago, a North Carolina grand jury declined to indict Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick for the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American man who had just had a horrifying car accident. Ferrell, seriously injured in the accident, staggered to a nearby home for help. He was shot 10 times in the chest by law enforcement when they arrived to respond to the 911 call for an ambulance. The grand jury offered no explanation for its decision.
Extreme examples of potential racial profiling like the Ferrell case are and have been pretty rare since the 1960s. However, more routine examples of racial profiling happen every day, in almost every city in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to be arrested or have their automobiles searched after routine traffic stops as whites. Eighty-nine percent of pedestrian stops under New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” law have been of non-whites. In Los Angeles, black pedestrians are 127 percent more likely to be frisked and 29 percent more likely to be arrested than whites. Multiple large-scale studies have indicated that racial profiling is an inefficient allocation of resources—minorities are statistically no more likely to be found with any type of illegal contraband when searched than whites—yet it continues all across the nation.
To be fair, we’ve come a long way when it comes to equal protection under the law since the 1960s. Unjustified beatings of minorities by law enforcement are much rarer today than they were during white supremacy’s reign of terror in the South during the first half of the century. And for the most part, we have done a better job holding the perpetrators accountable. However, there seems to be no easy solution to the daily, systemic profiling of minorities on the streets of every city in America. The burden is definitely not all on police officers—every one of us at this school, myself included, commits subtle psychological acts of profiling when we walk on the other side of Delmar Boulevard to avoid a homeless man or talk about East St. Louis in hushed voices or overgeneralized stereotypes.
I realized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that I may have escaped being charged with a crime because I am a white, educated male. My birth and upbringing have put me in a position of privilege where I cannot fully understand what it is like to be harassed by the police or avoided by ordinary people when I choose to walk down a city street. There is no quick solution to the problem of racial profiling in the United States—the Department of Justice has many rules in place to try and prevent it—but I think being aware of our own unique privileges is a good way to at least begin to understand the issue.