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Cop Eye for the Black Guy

By Kathy Y. Wilson · November 19th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide
People act like racial profiling doesn't exist. Do the math. They act like cops -- bad cops -- don't detain drivers based first on race and then, while they're at it, rifle through the car for anything worthy of adding us to the "just us" system.

Cops who profile are hoping, just hoping, the broken taillight or the expired registration or the brown skin in the wrong neighborhood uncovers something. They're acting as though "can't we all just get along" is some coon tune crooned by Emmett Till and not a timeless jingo slurred by a punch-drunk Rodney King after the 1991 acquittal of the four L.A. cops who beat him down.

Racial profiling weakens and demeans. It seduces us into believing the hype of "they're all alike" because they assume we are. It's thuggish.

Supposition of guilt based on race is dirty. It lends further credence to the assumption that cops operate largely as roguish gangs with tactics identical to those utilized by the roguish street gangs all cops are trained to eradicate.

It lopsides justice, disadvantages due process and identifies by color the supposed "enemy," the assumed "troublemaker."

Colors. How many of us have them?

Used to be in New Jersey cops spied through complete darkness the race of a driver by casting the cruiser's high beams across the road. It was like triggering a camera flash when drivers passed through the shaft of light.

Smile, nigga! You're on The Man's camera!

Avoiding the mug shot in the booking process is the tricky part. Well, not really.

Cincinnati cops have, according to a study of six months' of traffic stops, disproportionately stopped black drivers for "equipment failure," a sometimes evasive reason to engage black drivers for the purposes of embarking on a fishing expedition. More white drivers got nabbed for speeding, a less threatening and more straightforward point of police-to-driver contact.

Detained black drivers didn't always get tickets, though, but were three times more likely to be searched without arrest.

Chief Tom Streicher says officers show "compassion" when they stop, but do not ticket, black motorists for busted taillights. Aaaw. That's mighty white of him.

At the least Streicher's explanation is as flimsy as the stops, and it's paternalistic. At the most, his explanation is a lie, relegating racial profiling to a secret necessary evil that ends in glad tidings: Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.

And I'd believe him if I and every black intimate I know -- men and women, young to middle-aged, attorneys to students or Fortune 500 types -- hadn't each been profiled more than once. And not just as drivers.

We've been profiled while shopping, while house hunting and during job interviews. I just heard another racial profiling lynching story from the weekend.

What color is guilt? Black is/black ain't.

But I find racially profiling motorists works best as bait for a bad cop's fishing pole. After all, the streets are well stocked, pregnant with Negroes driving upstream.

Lives change blink-quick once the trust between a cop and a motorist is eroded by race. But when profiling happens with the regularity and finesse of a serial rapist, we must school our black boys in the life-saving fine points of A Black Man's Behavior During a Traffic Stop (patent pending since slavery).

Take what happened to New Yorker Bryonn Bain, a Columbia University graduate with a master's degree from New York University who studied law at Harvard.

It's what I call the "Ah ha!" profile. Those start with the stop for an actual infraction -- in Bain's case, yes, a broken tail light -- and end with a surreal debacle repeating the tape loop we thought had spooled off.

In "Three Days in NYC Jails," his first-person Village Voice account (issue of Sept. 24-30), Bain was thrown in jail for the weekend last November after cops ran his license. He was wanted on multiple warrants.

While in the Vernon C. Bain Center -- a corrections facility ironically named for the family who once owned Bain's ancestors -- a series of public defenders botched his defense. They tagged him bipolar and neglected to demand that his fingerprints and photo be matched against the thief who'd stolen his identity, committed felonies and jumped bail. Justice began to squeak only after an assistant district attorney recognized Bain as a former law school classmate.

Amazingly, it was Bain's second instance of racial profiling. The first resulted in "Walking While Black," a 1999 Village Voice cover story.

Racial profiling snakes its way throughout the entirety of the large intestine of the criminal justice system. It brands black (usually male) suspects as thugs and, therefore, terrorists. Then it expands and expounds on the labels (guilty, uneducated, insane, disposable) affixed to them. It's racial profiling as the pile-on.

We've seen it with Roger Owensby Jr., who was literally piled on, and with Timothy Thomas, who was ticketed to death.

At its foundation, racial profiling is a false positive. Alright, already. I've got that part down.

In Bain's case, the double redundancy of racial profiling run buck wild illuminates the racially motivated fault lines entrenched in an entire system tethered by overzealous cops, overworked and disengaged public defenders and judges stampeded by suspects.

What's got me twisted is this equation: x (black) + y (guilt) divided by minor infraction + fishing expedition = holding cell 'til it does or doesn't work itself out. Remainder: justice.

And that still isn't the right answer.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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