Stop Pretending ‘The Law’ is Not Racist!

Victims of convict leasing, from an earlier era of selective law enforcement

Everybody’s talking these days about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And the protests following the shooting. And the host of other recent killings and use of force against black people by police officers.

I’ve also heard many pundits, commentators, and counter-protesters (in support of the officer who shot Brown) say that all this controversy is pointless, unfounded, just plain wrong. The laws are not racist, they say. Neither are officers expressly told (most of the time) to target minorities. They also say that they themselves never have trouble with police officers as long as they cooperate and just do what the officer says, as they’re supposed to, which just goes to show that as long as you behave yourself, you have nothing to worry about.

As a generally ‘well-behaved’ (mostly so, but then again, I rarely got caught when I wasn’t) white woman who has never felt unfairly targeted by law enforcement, I say to this second group of people, if you are an adult yet you think the law is ‘color-blind’, either you systematically let your biases filter out too much of the available information out there, you live under a rock, or you’re lying. Or something like one of these.

Because I had never been unfairly targeted by police, I was mostly, blissfully unaware, until my very early adulthood, that such things were still going on. I thought this sort of behavior on the part of the police largely a relic of the past, of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era that I became so fascinated by in my schoolgirl years (and remain so to this day). We all love hero stories, and I thought of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (and my favorite fictional hero, Atticus Finch) as among the greatest, ordinary people who stood up for the oppressed and the outcast, who triumphed against the tyrannical and the cruel, and most of all, the unjust: I always have been rather obsessed with issues of justice. I thought police had mostly changed their racist ways like most of us, and now usually did the right thing, especially because, of course, they make it their mission to stop those who don’t do the right thing.

My rather childish ignorance was first revealed to me when I witnessed my then boyfriend, a young Mexican man, pulled over by a police officer for no good reason at all.  Usually, if we were driving, we were driving together unmolested, but that day, I was following his car in mine because we had met up after work. A police car passed me after a stoplight and to my surprise, I found that his flashing lights and siren were intended for my boyfriend! We were not speeding, and it was daytime so car lights were not an issue… I could not think of a reason he would be pulled over. After the questioning ended and the cop had left, I asked my boyfriend what had happened. He admitted, embarrassed, that this happened to him all the time, it was just a regular part of his life. A young Mexican man in an old car must, necessarily, be up to no good, or if he wasn’t now, he must recently have been or was about to.

I was angry and shocked at the injustice of it all, and tried to imagine what it would feel like, and the effect it would have on my character, if I were regularly treated as a criminal, or a potential criminal, based entirely on what I look like, from the time I was young. I don’t think I could imagine, fully, what it would truly be like, but it seems a reasonable expectation that many people’s moral characters could be damaged from an early age, if many of the adults around them, especially those who set themselves up as authorities and moral leaders, act so unjustly. These young people are taught that ‘the law’ is used to protect others but punish them, that the police are not there to protect them, and that justice has a different meaning depending on what color you are, or worse, that it doesn’t really exist.

As I’ve gone through life, as I’ve had friends, co-workers, and fellow students of many races and ethnicities, as I have followed the news, and have done some study and research on matters of criminal justice, I’ve encountered countless instances of minorities unfairly and systematically targeted by law enforcement. I have a dear friend who used to travel though Colorado and Utah to go visit her family, who had to allow time for the inevitable police stop or two on each trip, no matter how carefully she drove. Yes, as you may have guessed, my friend is black. (My brother regularly travels a route in more or less the same geographical region, and has never had that problem).

These related issues, of racial profiling and selective law enforcement, has bothered me so long that when I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a criminal justice class, I jumped at the chance. I chose this subject  as the topic of my final paper, and my research uncovered a wealth of information on the subject. Study after study, public record after public record, revealed that minorities are pulled over, stopped and frisked, or arrested even for incredibly minor infractions that I had no idea that were ever enforced, at disproportionately high rates, commonly double or more than the rate of white people, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, all over the United States. And even when minorities and whites are charged with the same or similar crimes, they get very different treatment: whites are shown leniency far, far more often than anyone else: they are, on average, sentenced to fewer years in prison or are routed to treatment instead; they are sent to state courts instead of federal courts. Minorities generally get the book thrown at them.

And in case you’re one of those who think that the law is color-blind, no, the objection you might make, that minorities commit more of the crimes so of course they’re targeted and go to jail more, is not valid. This vast accumulation of evidence that minorities are disproportionately targeted holds true for all kinds of crimes, the ones that whites commit at the same or higher rates, as well as ones that different minority groups commit at higher rates. Especially drug crimes: while whites commit most drug crimes at the same or higher rates than other groups, they are arrested far less, and if caught, don’t tend to be punished nearly as often.

Much of this information, many of these stories, have been featured in news story after news story over the years. This includes the seemingly ever-increasing recent stories in which black people are shot and/or killed for trying to get into their own house they locked themselves out of, or for being mentally ill and having a breakdown in public, or for selling single cigarettes on a street corner, or for having a fight with a bullying wannabe self-appointed ‘lawman’ on his way home. Have these pundits and ‘color-blind’ pollyannas been sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, it’s not happening!’ as black and brown people are being shot, beaten, and arrested, by the score, for the kinds of mistakes and indiscretions that most of us have engaged in at one time or another without permanent repercussion, while minorities are being caged at a rate that puts those old Jim Crow regions to shame?

I would say to these people, especially parents: imagine what would have happened to you, and what the life chances would be for your kids, if you and they were stopped and frisked, pulled over and your car searched, constantly throughout your life. If all those times you were a little naughty and had a drink while underage or too soon before you drove, or you or your friends had a little weed or coke in your car or pocket, or had sassed a cop when you were immature and raging with hormones and gleeful with youthful irresponsibility, or committed a petty theft…. Imagine that instead of getting away with it at the time, as most of us have, you would almost surely be caught and suffer permanent consequences (jail time, a criminal record, or worse) because everywhere you go, you are likely to be followed around by someone who assumes you probably belong in jail because of what you look like, has the power to throw you in there, and in extreme cases, even beat, choke, or shoot you, with impunity.

I and most of the white people that I, and I expect that you, know would all have been arrested or jailed at least once if the laws were enforced equally for everyone. But those of us lucky enough to go through life untargeted probably have forgotten most of the stupid things we’ve done because we haven’t had to suffer permanent harm for it; instead, we grew up, and had the chance to live a decent life, get an education and good housing, and get a decent job because we don’t have a criminal record. I fear for my nephew when I remember that he has to grow up as a young black man in this society, that he has far less wiggle room to make the mistakes that most of us make as we grow up and struggle through life. I got away, and still do, with my indiscretions and mistakes, easily, because I’m not targeted. That is not likely to be the case for my nephew.

Give that a ponder, put yourself in other’s shoes. If you are honest, I think you’ll admit that we still live in a racist, unjust, and all to much un-free society, especially for those of us with darker skin. Stop pretending now, if you are doing so, that racism is over just because the letter of the law is no longer racist. As long as law enforcement is racist, the reforms of the Civil Rights era have very limited practical meaning, and the struggles of our great social reformers continue to be, largely, in vain.