Washington D.C. attorney Jody Westby almost certainly did not return to her home recently thinking that she would be a heroine or perform a heroic act. But in one instant she became just that. She did a powerful humane act that showed in a graphic way how racial profiling can be stopped dead in its tracks. Westby intervened when two police officers stopped Dennis Stucky, a disabled black handyman, in her neighborhood after receiving a report of a burglary suspect on the prowl there. She stopped, and identified herself as an attorney who lived in the neighborhood, vouched for his identity, and demanded the officers leave. Her parting words to them have been shouted countless times, in countless places, and in countless different ways in recent weeks, "Just because he's black, doesn't mean he's here to rob a house." The officers promptly left the scene.
What would have happened if Westby hadn't been there" Or if she had simply kept walking? Or, worse overtly or tacitly voiced support for the harassing stop of Stucky? These are hardly moot points. The questions have been answered badly when middle-class, well-to-do neighbors, residents, and passersby's see blatant cases of harassment racial harassment on the streets and do nothing. But Westby did get involved, and her involvement, sent another horrific message. That's that there's a brutally different standard of how far too many police officers and officials deal with African-Americans in predominantly toney white middle-class neighborhoods.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has oft told the tale of being pulled over twice as a college student driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and again as a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C. He was not in a black neighborhood when the stops happened and there was no Westby to come to his aid. In Ferguson, Missouri, a study based on police statistics found that in 2013 while African-American drivers made up a little less than two-thirds of the driving-age population in the city, they made up nearly 90 percent of all traffic stops. They were almost twice as likely to be searched as whites and twice as likely to be arrested even though police found no weapons or drugs on them. An ACLU study found that blacks were likely to be stopped, searched and arrested in nearly every category of crime than whites. Westby's intervention, though, pointed up yet another brutal fact. When white middle-class well-heeled, professionals do get involved when they see or perceive a racial wrong, they get the benefit of a reverse stereotype. That is that they are regarded as more credible, trustworthy, and believable than African-Americans or Hispanics, when they speak. Put even more bluntly, they are coated with an authority aura that few blacks or Hispanics, especially poor, blacks and Hispanics could ever have. This is glaringly apparent in cases involving black defendants.
Two Penn State University studies on racial perceptions and stereotypes, one in 2003 and a follow-up study in 2008, found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American. But the studies also found that white jurors are more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses, no matter how tainted or compromised their testimony, than that of defense witnesses, particularly black witnesses.
There's more damaging proof that authorities are much more likely to rate whites as far higher on the trust and believability scale than blacks or Hispanics. A study in 2011 by New York University psychologists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested "trustworthy" measures through photographs and questions given to a group of racially diverse participants. There was no surprise in their findings.
The participants' implicit race attitudes predicted disparities in the perceived trustworthiness of black and white faces. Individuals whose tests demonstrated a stronger pro-white implicit bias were more likely to judge white faces as more trustworthy than black faces, and vice versa, regardless of that individual's own race or explicit beliefs. This bias spilled over into decisions on who they would be most likely to do business with based on the trust factor. Blacks rated lowest. The racial trust biases were not deliberate, and blatant, but were subtle and implicit irrespective of the individuals they were dealing with. In other words they would be just as likely to distrust the word of a Colin Powell as any other African-American.
Westby was white, middle-class, and an attorney, and therefore automatically believable and credible when she voiced her outrage. Stucky was fortunate she was there and did what she did. Others haven't been so fortunate. That will only change when more such as Westby choose to say no to racial profiling.
The Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable will award Jody Westby its Civic Engagement on Friday, October 10. The award is given to her in recognition of her courageous act in challenging racial profiling. It's also intended to spur other citizens to responsible, proactive engagement and involvement in reporting on, disclosing and confronting wrongdoing, misconduct and citizen abuse by public officials and employees.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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