A female jogger runs in the twilight of night, feet pounding against the ground in a steady rhythm. Nearby, teenage boys laugh as they run through the streets, the adrenaline of a night out on their own flowing through their blood like electricity. It’s a normal evening, but suddenly, a terrible tragedy occurs. The woman is found nearly dead, collapsed on the ground with brutal injuries and signs of being severely raped. How do police bring justice to such a heinous crime? Who is to blame, and who will take on the anger of this injustice? The answer presents itself in a group of Black boys who appear to be running from the police. Are they guilty? Perhaps not. Their innocence will appear all the more clear as they are questioned. But they they looked suspicious, and that was enough to seal their fate. The scene described here is that of the Central Park Five case from 1989. Although being innocent in actuality, the boys were sentenced accordingly to years in prison for their “crimes”. They were the closest thing to suspects the investigation team had, so therefore they were guilty in the prosecution’s eyes.
What makes a person a suspect? Is it where they were, what they were wearing, or maybe what they looked like? These suspicions seem to be based mainly on assumption, which can be a dangerous thing. Some people, such as in this case, suspect Black people to be criminals based on their appearances. The boys in the Central Park Five case were considered suspicious because the color of their skin was stereotypically “criminal-like”. All of these factors contributed to the boys’ prosecution in When They See Us. They were assumed to be guilty because they were black, and “wildin” while black was enough to sentence them. Another word for these woeful “assumptions” about people based on their outward appearance is racial profiling. Racial profiling jumps to conclusions without assessing the situation and feeds on fear to create a narrative that indicates all people who look “different” as dangerous. Illogical and unfounded, racial profiling is born of a bias against people of color solely to further false feelings of safety, and it is also deeply embedded in the government.
Profiling, like many other racial injustices, started years ago. When the police system began in the U.S., people of color automatically faced racial profiling. After slavery ended, many people still tried to find a way to gain free labor from black people. Due to the loophole in the 13th Amendment, Blacks were able to be arrested for minor crimes such as “loitering” and thus sentenced to time in prison.
“Neither Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” — the 13th Amendment
There is no denying the racial profiling and blatant racism that is evident here; these arrests directly stemmed from a desire to keep slavery alive in the south. This introduced the idea that Blacks were criminals. Later in the 20th century, once it was unacceptable to be publicly racist, Robert Nixon began to place a “war” on drugs, and later Ronald Raegan put this idea into action. Popular opinion polls of the 70s showed it was not a widespread issue for most U.S. citizens, but Raegan was determined to wage war on drugs. Then “crack cocaine” was introduced, an inexpensive drug that could overwhelm Black communities. However, the sentences for the inexpensive (likely owned by People of Color) crack cocaine versus the more expensive powder cocaine (more likely owned by Whites), varied vastly, showcasing even more racial injustice. When a Florida officer began compiling a list of attributes of drug dealers, the Drug Enforcement Administration crafted their own system relying on the stereotypes of drug dealers. They found that the dealers were largely people of color, and Operation Pipeline was born. In short terms, this operation was government funding provided to train police in learning how to profile people by race. The effect of this was that black drivers immediately became targeted by police. The statistics don’t lie; while black drivers made up 13.5% of New Jersey Turnpike drivers, 35% of drivers stopped by the police were black. In Maryland it was found that 17% percent of drivers were black, and of people stopped by the police, a shocking 72% were black. Due to this idea perpetuated by the police force that most drug dealers were black and therefore drug criminals, most people began to see black people when they thought of a stereotypical criminal.
Are Black people more likely to commit crimes than White people? The history of forced criminalization of Blacks is obvious, but are Black people actually more dangerous than White people? To say Black people are more dangerous than white people would be a hasty generalization. The true facts are much more complex, but if one looks into them closely they can find the truth. In 1999, a former police officer from Miami named Marshall Frank argued that Blacks and People of Color commit more crimes than others and therefore racial profiling is justified in order to keep the general public safe. However, studies proved that police found more drugs when they stopped White people, disproving the “dangerous minorities” narrative that had been suggested by Frank and others. Many people continue to use this line of thinking today however. This is likely because of the fear installed in everyone after the horrific September 11th attacks in 2001. After these attacks, people became more open again to the idea of profiling, in order to keep the population safe. In 2017 a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that intraracial crime, or crime amongst the same race, is more common than interracial crime. In cases with White victims, 57% of crimes were perpetrated by White people. Thus, these public safety fears are unfounded, and these fears are perpetuated solely as means to create a racial divide amongst people of color and white people.
Now that it has been established that racial profiling has a long history in the U.S. and is unfounded in and of itself, let us take a look into the systemic racism that feeds on racial profiling. A professor from Princeton University named Kevin Kruse writes about how desegregation didn’t incorporate the White and Black populations; it only made a “a new division in which the public world was abandoned to Blacks and a new private one was created for Whites”. In Atlanta, desegregation of public pools went relatively smoothly because the Whites simply created private clubs and pools. This gave them a “safe” space from the potentially “dangerous” Blacks. From the example of the Atlanta pools, we can see how chosen segregation is dangerous because it once again reinforces the idea of the dangerous differences between White and Black people. If no race is more dangerous than another, which the statistics support, we must stop treating each other as if we are different. Almost everywhere in the U.S. can we see voluntary segregation. Religious institutions, restaurants, hotels, schools and more are just the beginning of the continued separation of White people and People of Color. Voluntary segregation shows how deeply rooted racial profiling is; even when not required to segregate, White people tend to drift away from People of Color to feel safer. The idea spread through racial profiling that we are inherently different, that some people are more dangerous, more likely to be criminals than others based on the color of their skin, is racism and detrimental to a harmonious society. Other than voluntary segregation, an actual system in the government that contains racial profiling is the police system. Due to actions such as the criminalization of drugs, more People of Color are stopped by the police as aforementioned. However, in some cases, they do not even get the same treatment once they are stopped. Police brutality is a burning issue in the U.S., with the recent 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others. Even the convictions can be unjust, such as in the Central Park five case. The five boys were all sentenced to time in jail despite being innocent. In Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, she shows how there was no evidence to convict the boys, and they were simply framed because of a want for justice and an assumption falsely based on their appearances.
Korey Wise, one of the boys involved in the case, was sent to an adult prison despite being only 16. This also shows the injustice in the prison system, which continues to indicate and incarcerate many People of Color. There is a disparity in the number of White people compared to People of Color in prison; The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that Black people make up 38% of people in prison, despite only being 14.6% of the U.S. population. The National Registery of Exonerations studies every case in the U.S. in which innocent people were convicted as guilty, and then later exonerated. A study from this organization found that 47% of people in these cases were black. This study also indicated that black people are 7 times more likely to be declared guilty of murder than white people. All these things are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to police and judicial racial injustice. The increased incarceration rates caused by racial profiling affects black and POC families as well, stripping fathers and mothers away from children and creating unstable environments for children to grow up in. Unstable home environments only create more of an opening for Black children to become deemed “criminals”. Drugs and the like are more tempting in an unstable home. In these ways, we can see how racial profiling does not only affect individuals, but also the populations of People of Color in general, and even the entirety of the U.S.
The cycle of racial profiling is brutal and endless, stemming everywhere from a pool house to a prison. The blind fear of one person can ruin the life of another. Fear is a powerful emotion, but it is one we must overcome if we want to create a beneficial society to everyone. It is a sweeping generalization, a logical fallacy, to say that all black people are dangerous. People from every race can be dangerous, and if we can recognize that we have only been conditioned to think of black people as dangerous because of the racism embedded in our past, we can finally move on and take hold of our future as a country.