PLG Civil Liberties and Multicultural Studies

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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Racial Profiling

You and your friend are walking down the street in New York City and you happen to notice the NYPD conducting stop and frisks. However, there seems to be a consistent pattern going on. The only people they’re searching are African Americans or Hispanic people. They let you go but tell your friend she needs to put her hands against the wall. She refuses and they arrest her. What would you do and how would you feel?

Before we can delve into scenarios, we need to understand the meaning of racial profiling.

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Racial profiling is the use of race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone has committed an offense. In blunt terms, you assume they have committed a crime or are up to something mischievous because of their race. For example, Muslims are often targeted for acts of terrorism, and Hispanics are targeted for illegal immigration. According to the U.S. Department of Corrections, Black male adolescents ranging from the ages of 18 to 19 are more than ten times likely to be in state or federal prison than white males. Racial profiling goes as far back as colonial times, but it wasn’t fully recognized as a crime by law officials until the 1980s. For example, during the Jim Crow era, a registry was created exclusively for African Americans to keep track of each individual’s physical characteristics, their free status, and how they gained that freedom. This was developed to limit the number of free Black people in the south. If they couldn’t prove their status from this registry, they could be forced into slavery. This continued up until the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Ironically, the Supreme Court states that you need more than probable cause to convict someone, but back in the day, that wasn’t really a priority.

In the 1800s-1960s, if you were an African American, you could be accused of anything, whether you were guilty or not, and sentenced to death. In the article, “Whren at Twenty: Systemic Racial Bias and the Criminal Justice System,” the author explains how law enforcement and the African American community have reached exacerbated levels of conflict. Law enforcement has been killing Black people over their own “suspicion” when, in reality, it’s just their prejudiced, biased, and corrupt views. Unfortunately, this racial injustice can be dated back as far as the 1800s. The writer gives examples such as Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot and killed for playing with a toy gun, and Samuel DuBose. Officials claimed he was being dragged by DuBose’s car, yet no physical evidence proves that. They have this “Broken Windows” policy, which allows police to violate the law. The writer discusses an important case, Whren vs. the United States. Decided in 1996, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop. The moral of this article is that the African American community has faced extensive oppression at the hands of both the founding fathers and the law that governs them. In the article, “Trayvon Martin: Racial Profiling, Black Male Stigma, and Social Work Practice,” the author talks about how racial profiling has negatively impacted the Black community and brings to light a case that made worldwide headlines with a disappointing result.

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, was walking home from a convenience store with nothing more than a bag of Skittles and a soft drink in his hand. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, claimed that the teenager was “up to no good.” Now, call me crazy, but what could a 17-year-old possibly do with Skittles? Zimmerman contacted the local authorities, and they advised him to stop his pursuit of Trayvon. Despite disregarding what the police had told him, he continued to follow Trayvon and then fatally shot him. Zimmerman was charged with first-degree murder but was quickly acquitted. How can someone, clearly guilty of murder, be acquitted so easily? Unfortunately, the only argument they had was reasonable doubt, and that is not enough to indict someone. There was no evidence that could prove Zimmerman was the assailant. Moreover, the prosecution did not anticipate that on the eve of the trial, their potentially most persuasive evidence — the forensic testimony that Martin was the one calling for help just before the shot was fired — would be barred by the judge. Although this decision appears correct, prosecutors have often been allowed to present shaky forensic evidence. Outrage spread like wildfire as news of the acquittal made national headlines. This case introduced us once again to the depths of racial profiling and its effects on the black community. Zimmerman had no reason to assume this child was dangerous. He could see only the color of a child’s skin. This trial was clearly one-sided and marked the beginning of a downhill slide.

Do you ever stop yourself and think why most racial suits by law enforcements don’t make it up to the Supreme Court, or are dismissed? The United States Supreme Court has made it impossible to seek justice for these types of cases. It is as if they are more concerned about protecting their brothers in blue, regardless of the crime committed. For example, Sandra Bland was pulled over by State Trooper Brian Encina for failing to signal when changing into the right lane. After an intense exchange of words from both sides, she was forced out of her vehicle and assaulted on the sidewalk. After forcing her onto the ground and placing cuffs behind her back, State Trooper Brian Encia took Sandra Bland into custody. Approximately three days later, Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell. Her death was instantly ruled a suicide, however, something is not adding up here. Her family still has many unanswered questions that officials are refusing to answer as if they are trying to cover up something. There was never an investigation as to why she was dead or the treatment she endured while with Encia. If roles were reversed and a cop was assaulted & then killed, nine times out of ten an investigation would launch ASAP and that person would pay for their crime. How are we supposed to trust a system that does more harm than it helps? According to the article “Perceptions of Police, Racial Profiling and Psychological Outcomes: A Mixed Methodological Study”, studies have reported that race influences misperceptions of weapons when it comes to split-second decision-making with police, meaning they are prone to assuming minorities are more likely to be carrying a weapon than a white person. Looks can be very deceiving. If minorities are as dangerous as police claim, where is the evidence? Granted every place has crime, some more than others; but what about the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Boston Bomber? A majority of these mass shootings happen to be white males, and yet the justice system is lenient on them despite their heinous crimes. On June 17, 2015, at approximately 9:00 PM, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. Witnesses state that before he started shooting, he announced he was there to kill black people. He was arrested the next morning and later admitted to the authorities that he was trying to start a race war. What is most disturbing in this case is how he was treated when he was apprehended by authorities. He was given fair treatment as well as Burger King. Now call me crazy, but if he was a minority, like how Sandra Bland was treated in federal custody, he would have been badly beaten or worse; dead. Once this made headlines, there was talk. People were discussing how this was an act of terrorism, however, authorities refuse to acknowledge it as such. The law can be very contradicting and one-sided. The hardest pill to swallow is that the people we are supposed to entrust with our lives are the ones that are so quick to cover up the injustice and oppression that has been ongoing for decades.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago, was murdered by two white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The outraged husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, dragged Till out of his home and took him behind a tool shed owned by Milam. There they discovered and beat him badly. They then forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan up to the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. They proceeded to gouge out his eyes, shoot him in the head, tie his ankles with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan, and toss him into the river. His body was discovered three days later, but they had trouble identifying him due to the severe mutilation. The only means of identification was the ring on his finger. Local authorities attempted to cover up this murder as quickly as possible. However, Till’s mother requested the body to be sent back to Chicago.

Horrified by the condition of her mutilated son’s body, she decided to have an open casket funeral, exposing to everyone the horrific acts racist murderers had inflicted on her only son. An African American weekly magazine, Jet, took pictures of the mutilated body and featured it in their publication. This immediately grabbed the media’s attention. Less than two weeks after his burial, Roy and J.W. stood trial in a segregated courthouse for the murder of Emmett Till. On September 23rd, the defendants were found not guilty by an all-white jury. The jury based their verdict on claimed failure of the state to prove the identity of the body. The public was outraged, not only at the not guilty verdict but also at the state’s failure to prosecute the defendants for kidnapping Till. Decades later, Carolyn (the woman he supposedly flirted with), recanted her testimony. In the article: “Policing the Boundaries of Whiteness: The Tragedy of Being ‘Out of Place’ from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin,” the author compares the unjust deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. Both were murdered without any probable cause; their deaths were based on mere hearsay. Unfortunately, the law fails to protect anybody who isn’t a white male. Sadly, times have not changed. The author states, “More specifically, I take what many view as an extraordinary case about racial hatred from the 1950s, the Emmett Till murder and trial, and compare it to the Trayvon Martin killing and trial outcome in the 2010s, to reveal how the same racist principles that undergirded the Till case remain quite ordinary today.” Both cases involved clear guilt, and yet, no justice was provided.

No speculation was in place, just ignorance and people abiding by the stereotypes of African Americans and how “dangerous” they are. The real question is, are they? Should we fear them? Absolutely not. In the news today, all mass shootings have been by white people, and yet we aren’t afraid. We are so quick to justify killing a minority because they were dangerous, but we don’t fear them…They fear us. Now, given the information you have now, would you stand back and let a policeman stop and frisk your friend because she looks “dangerous” or “could be trouble”? Or would you stand up and say something? It may be 2019, but it sure feels like we never left the 1950’s.”

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PLG Civil Liberties and Multicultural Studies. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved from