By Jason Silverstein
On Tuesday, April 17, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing on "Ending Racial Profiling in America." It is the first panel hearing on racial profiling since 9/11.
Supporters of racial profiling argue that it helps identify criminals, protect innocents, and prevent crime. By using race, police may apprehend the criminals before they hurt us, or so the argument goes. By using crime statistics to justify the races profiled, supporters claim to be different from racists. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad writes in The Condemnation of Blackness, notions about blacks as criminals, refashioned through statistics in the 1920s and 1930s, gave advocates the ability to argue that the "numbers 'speak for themselves'" while proudly announcing "I am not a racist."
Statistics are powerful because they are seen as scientific and what is scientific is seen as true and what is true is seen as value-neutral. Susan Greenhalgh, however, urges us to understand the contexts, the pursuits, and the effects of statistics. This is also Muhammad's concern. These crime statistics are merely a technological upgrade from arguments about fundamental racial differences and the days of skull measurements. Bias hides behind the façade of science.
Racial profiling means increased surveillance, which creates a positive feedback loop that justifies more racial profiling. As Ian Ayres reports in his 2008 study of racial profiling in the LAPD, the stop rate was 3,400 higher per 10,000 residents for blacks than whites, the frisk rate was 127 percent higher for blacks than whites, and the arrest rate was 29 percent higher for blacks than whites. (Even though the "hit" rate, or the rate at which contraband is found on a suspect, is actually lower for blacks and Hispanics than whites.) When the arrest rate is increased, then the crime statistics increase, and when the crime statistics increase, then there is justification for more surveillance.
When we over-police minority groups, we create a criminal population. Here's a thought experiment. Let's say we required every employee of a financial institution that received Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to submit to a drug test. After all, TARP is a form of welfare, and several states have energetically pursued similar tests for welfare recipients. Let's say we stopped, frisked, and arrested a disproportionate amount of these TARP recipient employees, even though, on average, they actually did not possess as much contraband as employees of other institutions. What would the crime statistics tell us about the TARP population, and would we be justified in stopping, frisking, and arresting these employees at airports, on the highways, and outside of their own homes?
Laurence Ralph, a Professor of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard, has recently given a course on "Gangsters and Troublesome Populations." Ralph asks how the troublesome population (such as the "gang banger," the "rebel," and the "welfare queen") is given shape, and how we come to expect and incubate certain behaviors from certain populations. Ultimately, minorities subjected to racial profiling are not defined by who they are, but according to how we see them, which is always opposite ourselves who we imagine as threatened, but never the threat.
When we focus dramatically on the case of Trayvon Martin, we should ask what made this 17-year-old dangerous. George Zimmerman told a 911 operator that "This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something," because the boy was "just walking around, looking about" in the rain. What if Zimmerman had seen me, a 30-year-old white guy wearing my black rugby hoodie "just walking around, looking about" in the rain? Would he have seen me as a "jerk" that "always gets away," or a "punk"? Would he have felt the need to 'stand his ground" against me?
Ending racial profiling will take more than a panel hearing, of course, but Tuesday's forum is an important start. It is an important start because it focuses on the discriminatory practices of law enforcement institutions and agents, and this is where change must come. This is especially welcome in the wake of Geraldo's "blame the hoodie" message that amounted to a twisted commandment of "thou shalt not get killed." As the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights considers solutions to end racial profiling, I hope they turn the questions of racial profiling on themselves and ask for the sake of us all: Who are we? What do we represent?
Jason Silverstein is a PhD student in the department of anthropology at Harvard University. He works for Transition Magazine at the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He can be reached via http://scholar.harvard.edu/silverstein.