By Miguel De La Torre
Maybe the Cambridge police did not act “stupidly,” but did they act typically? Maybe the renowned historian overreacted, but if you lived a lifetime of racial profiling, would you have acted differently? Maybe the police officer could have been more sensitive to the situation, but why expect sensitivity from a dominant culture that refuses to admit a problem exists?
Whenever a person of color raises concerns over existing racist structures, they will more than likely be labeled by those who benefit from the status quo as “angry,” or better yet, “racist.” But regardless of what apologists say, the average black and Latino/a lives in a society where racial profiling continues to be the norm.
Even former President Bush recognized this when addressing Congress in February 2001. At that time he asked his attorney general “to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling. It’s wrong, and we will end it in America.”
Other matters became more pressing in September, of course, and, as could be expected, no specific recommendations ever came forward.
By July 2003, the state’s attorney general of Rhode Island (Massachusetts’ southern neighbor) released a study showing that law-enforcement agencies disproportionately stopped and searched racial minorities. But here is the irony of the report — these searches continued even though the study claimed that contraband was more likely to be found when white drivers were searched.
Racial profiling is less an issue of being stopped than of the humiliation of being searched. In my younger days, I decided to spend a weekend in New York. I was a young Latino with long hair, which I wore in a red bandana. At the time, my only earthly possession was a red sports car with an eight-track tape deck hooked up to awesome speakers. I would drive while listening, at full blast, to El Gran Combo.
While driving through New Jersey, I was pulled over. I asked the officer what was wrong, and was told that I was traveling five miles over the speed limit.
After asking permission, the officer proceeded to search my car. Common procedure for speeders? I think not. So I asked why. His response: sports cars driven by Latinos with Dade County license plates were suspected of importing cocaine to the Northeast. After finding nothing, he gave me a ticket.
Before racial profiling ever made the headlines, I knew what it meant to be a suspect because I committed the crime of driving while “under the influence of” being Hispanic.
Years later, in 1999, then-New Jersey Police Superintendent Williams gave an interview where he justified racial profiling by linking minority groups to drug trafficking. Why justify racial profiling if supposedly it doesn’t exist?
Attempting to stop marijuana trafficking, U.S. Forest Service officers in California’s Mendocino National Forest instructed forest rangers to stop cars driven by Hispanics.
Tim Crews, a newspaper publisher, obtained a park memo where rangers were told “to develop [a] probable cause for stop[ping cars driven by Hispanics, and] … if a vehicle stop is conducted and no marijuana is located and the vehicle has Hispanics inside, at a minimum we would like all individuals FI’d [field interrogated].”
Still, there are those who wish to construct a fantasy where we live in a post-racial world because we elected a bi-racial man to the once “only White” House.
For those who still insist racial profiling is a figment of the oversensitive imagination of minorities, go no further than the 50-mile stretch of I-95 where 76 percent of the motorists stopped were black, even though blacks constitute 20 percent of Marylanders with driver’s licenses. This statistic was based on a computer analysis of car searches from January through September 1995 conducted by the Associated Press.
Probably the saddest example of racial profiling was a game played in Philadelphia by the police during Christmas when I lived there in the late 1990s. It’s called RANCHing. RANCH stands for “Ruining Another Nigger’s Christmas Holiday.” During the season, some targeted people of color to give the special gift of a ticket, a gift which “keeps on giving” in the form of higher insurance rates.
This is not to say that all police officers participate in racial profiling. My own father was a cop, and I grew up hearing stories of how he risked his life “to serve and protect,” for which I am proud. But I also heard stories of racial profiling and abuse.
We owe it to ourselves to hear the stories of our neighbors of color to see if such a problem exists. For until we deal with the problem, every time a person of color is stopped by a white police officer, even if for proper cause, doubt will exist because racial profiling is the norm.