Dissecting the Long, Deep Roots of Racial Profiling in America

At its core, racial profiling is about racism and stereotypes and assuming the worst of people based on a biased perception of reality that is then projected and multiplied, affecting and endangering everyone of that same race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.
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Many think of racial profiling as a relatively recent problem that manifested in the 1980s when news of African Americans being pulled over for "driving while black" began making national headlines. The problem, however, dates back centuries and is a fairly recent manifestation of discriminatory conduct by law enforcement and the criminal justice system that dates back to at least the 1700s in the United States for people of African descent.

At its core, racial profiling is about racism and stereotypes and assuming the worst of people based on a biased perception of reality that is then projected and multiplied, affecting and endangering everyone of that same race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.

Let's define what it is: Racial profiling is the use of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or national origin by law enforcement agents as a factor in deciding whom to investigate, arrest or detain absent evidence of a specific crime or criminal behavior.

In 1704, South Carolina founded the first slave patrol in which white men policed black slaves on plantations and hunted for escaped slaves. Black people, the majority of which were slaves in South Carolina and other southern states, had to show passes to prove they had permission to be off the plantation, or, if they had been liberated, they had to carry freedom papers to prove they were free. Black people were subjected to interrogations and harassment and whippings and other physical punishment -- even death -- if they were determined to have run away. Like modern-day racial profiling, a black person's skin color, not their actions, made them subject to discriminatory treatment from law enforcement.

Today, black people are often suspected of committing crimes like drug possession, which then leads to a vehicle search, a stop-and-frisk or a pat-down. The common factors in all of this, despite the fact that we're nearly 150 years removed from the end of slavery, is blackness and the racist association of dark skin with criminality and wrongdoing.

In the immediate aftermath of slavery and well into the 20th century, black men throughout the Deep South were forced into another form of involuntary servitude called convict leasing, where they would be leased to work on plantations and for private corporations, such as railroad and coal companies.

Black men were forced into convict leasing, often through a specific set of laws called black codes, which were targeted at black people and used to assert control while enriching whites who had long been dependent on free black labor. Among the black codes were laws outlawing "vagrancy," which meant being without employment. And convictions for that so-called crime would typically require men, typically black men, to work off their sentences.

What's essential to understand about black codes and convict leasing and racial profiling is that they violate a fundamental principle of our democracy, which is equal protection of the law. The 14th Amendment, amended into the Constitution in 1868, was partially drafted in response to the black codes and convict leasing because it was clear that laws were being applied differently to blacks and whites. The 14th Amendment affirmed the citizenship of African-Americans and equal protection of the laws, including the right to life, liberty, property and due process.

Laws, even constitutional amendments, can be passed yet those same laws can be violated. We see these violations happening every day through modern-day racial profiling, which really become a more pervasive problem during the War on Drugs.

The current incarnation of the "War on Drugs" began in 1982 under Ronald Reagan as drug crimes were on the decline. The focus on stopping drug usage and sales through harsh sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and an intense focus on urban black neighborhoods for anti-drug efforts led to more than a tripling of the prison population in 30 years with substantial racial disparities. In the past few decades, the number of people who are incarcerated has climbed dramatically from 300,000 to 2 million, which is more than a six-fold increase. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated that black males had an imprisonment rate that was nearly seven times higher than the incarceration rate of white men. And the rate of incarceration of black women was nearly three times the rate of white women. As Human Rights Watch noted in a 2009 study, blacks are arrested at much higher rates than whites even though they commit drug offenses at comparable rates.

One common denominator among the War on Drugs, convict leasing and the black codes is the use of the law enforcement in a discriminatory way that often begins with an act of racial profiling. Another common factor, a motivating factor, is racial control and subjugation of people of color.

Although African Americans have a unique history with racial profiling in the United States, the problem hasn't been limited to African Americans.

After 9/11, people who are Arab, Muslim and South Asian have found themselves routinely being singled out for secondary searches and interrogations when crossing international borders and entering and exiting the country. People like Hasan Elahi have found themselves under surveillance solely because of their nationality and religion when they have no more relationship to the 9/11 attackers than most Christians have to the bombing of the Alford P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

With heightened focus by the federal government on involving local law enforcement agencies in apprehending undocumented immigrants, people like Angel Francisco Castro-Torres have been racially profiled and beaten because of how they look. In fact, Latinos have increasingly found themselves being singled out for stops, detentions and investigations with the ramping up of resources committed to immigration enforcement. Citizens like Tiburcio Briceno might've thought they'd never be threatened with deportation but darker skin and a Mexican accent can make you a target as well.

These stories show that race still matters a great deal in the United States. They make the idea that America is a post-racial society laughable.

So we at Rights Working Group work to keep the spotlight on racial profiling and seek to ban it. This month, we launched the Faces of Racial Profiling video series, which shows the human impact of racial profiling on various communities of color.

The series was launched with a video interview of Art Way, who was racially profiled as an 11-year-old boy and then went on as an adult to help pass a law to limit racial profiling and consent searches without reasonable cause in Colorado. We launched it during Black History Month to acknowledge the historical roots of this problem affecting African Americans in the United States dating back to the 1700s.

Watch the video. Then take action with us to call on the U.S. Senate to include a ban of racial profiling in immigration reform legislation.

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