Racial Profiling in the USA
Targets of the War on Drugs
Revolutionary Worker #1019, August 22, 1999
Black and Latino people know it goes on: They get stopped for nothing by the cops--over and over again. Black and Latino kids get jacked up, frisked and threatened--routinely--for just walking down the street. Black and Latino motorists get stopped in traffic for ridiculous pretexts. And then they're subjected to questioning, searches, insults and often arrest. Their crime? In the oppressed communities, people have a name for it "DWB"--"Driving While Black" or "Driving While Brown."
This is "racial profiling." Police all over the country routinely take certain nationality and dress as evidence that people are likely to be criminals.
In the last few years, with the launching of the U.S. government's so-called "War on Drugs," the intensity of such racist harassment has picked up on the highways, in the neighborhoods, and at the customs checkpoints. Sometimes the result is even worse than humiliation and arrest--many have ended up killed by the cops at the side of the road.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), speaking about "racial profiling" by law enforcement, recently summed up: "No person of color is safe from this treatment anywhere, regardless of their obedience to the law, their age, the type of car they drive, or their station in life."
If you are a kid in the inner city--dress hip hop or walk with a little pride--the police "profile" you as a likely "gang-banger." If you are a Black or Latino well-paid suburban professional driving a luxury car--then to the cops, you "fit the profile" of a major drug dealer or a car thief.
The actions, policies and assumptions of the police are unjust. They are insulting. They are crudely racist. They are often deadly. And they are the long-established and fiercely defended policies of the U.S. justice system.
This series exposes a method for criminalizing whole sections of the people. Part 1 of this series examined the mounting documentation of systematic and countrywide racial profiling. Part 2 analyzes some ways these racist police practices are supported and even escalated by leading forces and institutions of the ruling class.
The Hateful Question:
"What are you doin' here, boy?"
"Number One:The USA is, and always has been, a racist country. It is a country where white supremacy is the practice and all kinds of nonsense theories and notions about the so-called `inferiority of non-white peoples' are continually pumped out by the powers-that-be and the mouths they hire. This is the way it has been all through the history of this country, this is the way it is today. And this is the way it will stay, so long as the system we now live under--this system of capitalist imperialism, this system of exploitation, oppression, and plunder, worldwide--is in effect and rules over us."
Cold Truth, Liberating Truth:
How This System Has Always Oppressed Black People,
And How all Oppression Can Finally Be Ended,
published by the RW
"Racial profiling" by police is as American as apple pie.
Police exist in U.S. society to enforce the status quo, especially its basic property relations--the exploitation of working people of all nationalities by the overall ruling classes. Suppressing and controlling oppressed nationalities have always been a key part of the task of police in the U.S. Black, Latino and other people of color have always been systematically targeted by police--and the police have done this with the full backing of law, custom, courts and the highest governmental authorities.
Slave patrols crisscrossed the early U.S., especially the plantation South, to control the movement of Black people. Every Black person on the road was considered suspicious--a possible runaway slave, a potential troublemaker, a likely thief. Those Black people caught "where they didn't belong" were arrested. Those who resisted in any way were brutalized on the spot. These racist practices were carried out because they served the slavery system in the U.S.--which needed to keep Black people enslaved "down on the farm" for the accumulation of wealth.
After the Civil war of the 1800s, slavery was officially abolished, but plantation owners still wanted a captive work force. "Vagrancy" laws were passed, targeting Black people. Any Black person needed a clear purpose to be where they were--like the permission of a white person. Without that, they were legally considered "criminals"--and often sent to do forced labor on chain gangs. White supremacy was crucial to the semi-feudal production system of the plantation South--and so it was enforced (including by "racial profiling" on the highways) with the full legal and political support of the U.S. government and courts.
The police harassment on highways was so intense during the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s that Black families would often "drive straight through"--avoiding any stops in notorious parts of Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Florida and the Carolinas.
Targeting Mexican and Indian Peoples
Such methods of "racial profiling" haven't been just a Southern thing or just aimed at Black people.
The U.S. stole the lands of Indian people and seized the Southwest from Mexico. The inhabitants were repeatedly forced from their lands. Networks of sheriffs, troops and special agencies like the Texas Rangers were used to control and suppress Native and Mexican peoples.
Indian people have always been routinely targeted, harassed and even killed for leaving reservations to go into nearby towns. Those who left in groups were called "renegade Indians" and were often hunted by troops.
Latino people are treated as "aliens" and potential "illegals" by police, simply because of the way they look--and have been subjected to routine stops, police controls and brutality.
In urban areas, the police role of confining poor people into growing slums intensified as Black and Latino people increasingly entered the working class and the cities. Police assume that people who cross the lines separating communities must be "up to no good" -- theft, drugs or radical organizing. A Black person in an all-white community (or a white person in the Black community) are routinely stopped by police who demand to know--"What are you doing here?"
In the late 1960s, there was tremendous struggle against such racist policies of the police. The revolutionary Black Panther Party organized armed patrols to intervene when they saw police harassing and brutalizing Black drivers in Oakland traffic stops. The Kerner Commission study of Black urban rebellions documented a key grievance of Black people was the way police were "stopping Negroes on foot or in cars without obvious basis."
Profiles in the "War on Drugs"
"What is the point of all this harassment, this inefficiency, this futility? Is it really a way of finding contraband? Or is it, perhaps, a way of acclimating us to a future in which we will be routinely shadowed, stopped, and frisked by the police--a nation of suspects?"
Gary Webb, Esquire magazine
"The war on drugs is a war on the people.
The fascist crackdown is worse than crack."
Slogan by the RCP
In 1982, Vice President George Bush was put directly in charge of the "Task Force on Crime in Southern Florida." Over the next few years, this offensive expanded into a national (and international) military-police campaign known as "the war on drugs." A key part of this so-called "war on drugs" was a new matrix of regional and national connections between police departments and agencies--under the guidance of the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
These programs included:
The DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), where (the DEA writes) "state and local agencies can share real-time information on arrests and seizures with other agencies, obtain immediate results to record check requests, and receive detailed analysis of drug seizures to support investigations." The DOJ's Regional Information Sharing System (RISS) which describes itself as "six regional centers that share intelligence and coordinate efforts against criminal networks that operate in many locations across jurisdictional lines." The Mid-Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network (MAGLOCLEN), which is just one of the RISS subgroups. It connects 470 agencies, including over 160,000 police in Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. MAGLOCLEN offers a database of people and organizations suspected of being criminal, training in how to handle computers seized during raids, and support for surveillance bugging.
Such big brother networks have been used to organize operations of many different kinds. One of them, the DEA's "Operation Pipeline," has now mobilized local and state police to target people driving cars since it was started in 1984. (A separate operation targets trucks.) According to an article on "Operation Pipeline" in Esquire magazine, there are now 301 police commands in 48 states that participate, with an estimated 27,000 police who are Operation Pipeline graduates cruising the highways. The DEA says that Operation Pipeline "is now active along the highways and interstates most often used by drug organizations to move illicit drugs North and East and illicit money South and West"--in other words, everywhere.
Police in Operation Pipeline target people on the highways based on "profiles," then stop these people for traffic violations, and then search their cars--either by intimidating them into giving permission or by using drug-sniffing dogs. Searches often involved dismantling the car to look inside the panels and wheels.
In California, over 33,000 cars were checked by Highway Patrol canine units in 1997--in operations that heavily targeted Latino people. Police reported such sweeping harassment only found drugs in 2 percent of the stops. One cop said, "You've got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince."
The whole idea of profiles is the assumption that police can identify "likely criminals" on sight. The word "profile" was popularized by the FBI's "Behavioral-Science Unit" which now claims such things can be done "scientifically." Operation Pipeline trains police to look for things like maps with cities circled on them, tools on the floor, tinted windows, new tires on old cars, high mileage on a new car, a single key in the ignition, not enough luggage for a long trip, too much luggage for a short one. They also look for rental cars and an auto registration certificate in someone else's name. Journalist Gary Webb reported how one police profile included earrings, nose rings, eyelid rings, tattoos, and Deadhead stickers. Guidelines like this explain why tens of thousands of people, including lots of white people and especially white youth, are stopped, for no reason other than the way they (or their cars) look.
Though it is rarely said, the key element of such profiles is nationality. Arab travelers catch hell at airports and customs because of "anti-terrorism" profiles. Black people with dreadlocks or braids, Black people in luxury cars, Colombians, Jamaicans, anyone looking hip hop--whole nationalities, clothing styles and cultures have been criminalized.
Racism Masquerading as Reason
"It's not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It's the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that if officers are looking for criminal activity, they're going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports."
Bernard Parks, Los Angeles Police Chief
"If 20 people get off the train and 19 are white guys in suits and one is a black female, guess who gets followed? If racial profiling is intuition and experience, I guess we all racial-profile."
Gary McLinney, president of
Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police
"Some blacks, I just get the sense off them that they're wild... I have what you might call a profile. I pull up alongside a car with black males in it. Something doesn't match--maybe the style of the car with the guys in it... if it doesn't seem right, I say, 'All right, let's pull it over to the side,' and we go from there."
Policeman Mark Robinson, "The Color of Suspicion,"
New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1999
"No matter where travelers are coming from, 'the drug profile' fits any 'person of color,' clearing through many customs ports nationwide."
Senior Customs Inspector Cathy Harris
statement to Senate hearing
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes that people can only be legally targeted by police or searched if there is "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion" that they (specifically and personally) have been involved in a crime.
Historically such "fourth amendment protections" have not applied to Black people, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other oppressed nationalities because they were not legally considered citizens (and in some cases, not even considered fully human!).
Since discrimination openly based on "race" is no longer legal, most officials simply deny that police systematically treat people of color as if they are criminals. However, when pressed, these officials add it is only reasonable to include nationality as a part of a larger profile. They insist that with some groups and nationalities there is always a "probable cause" for suspicion--because whole groups of people, they claim, are simply more criminal. According to this police thinking, likely criminals can be identified by nationality and dress.
Such pig logic is soaked in distortion and prejudice. The extensive evidence of CIA involvement in the "crack epidemic" is officially ignored--while inner city youth are demonized, targeted and imprisoned in the war on drugs. Black or Latino kids riding in old cars are considered likely "gangbangers"--while Black professionals or athletes driving new BMWs are considered likely "drug dealers."
In fact, a large majority of people sent to prison for "drug offenses" are Black. Does that mean it is "reasonable" to assume that Black people are (somehow) the backbone of drug traffic--or that Black people generally deserve to be stopped and treated like drug traffickers? No.
Black and Latino communities have been targeted for the raids, clampdown and media hype during the system's "war on drugs"--and so people from those communities have been disproportionately arrested. The sentences for crack cocaine (which is widely used and sold in inner cities) are many times higher than for similar amounts of powder cocaine (which are widely used and sold in the largely white suburbs). So Black people busted for cocaine tend to get much more severe prison terms than suburban white people busted for cocaine.
Black people are estimated to be only 13 percent of the U.S. drug users (equal to their percentage in the population). But, Black people are 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Black people are targeted for arrests, and then are more likely to be convicted and imprisoned by the courts.
The ACLU special report sums up: "Because police look for drugs primarily among African-Americans and Latinos, they find a disproportionate number of them with contraband. Therefore, more minorities are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed, thus reinforcing the perception that drug trafficking is primarily a minority activity."
The imprisonment statistics do not prove that certain people have a "criminal nature"--it proves the criminally racist nature of the legal system. Anyway you look at it, it is unjust to use "racial profiling" to justify stopping, harassing, searching, detaining, and humiliating tens of thousands of people who are simply traveling or hanging out.
Interstate 95 is filled with examples. I-95 runs north up from Miami, past New York City--and it has become notorious for racist harassment. In Maryland, Black people are 17 percent of the motorists, but 73 percent of the people stopped and searched on I-95. In 1990, U.S. Attorney Lincoln Almond (now Governor of Rhode Island) claimed that Latinos were dominating the cocaine and heroin trade in the United States. At the same time, Latino people complained that they were being systematically targeted and harassed as they traveled through Rhode Island on I-95.
Supreme Court on Pretext Stops
"The vehicle code gives me fifteen hundred reasons to pull you over.
California Highway Patrol officer to Gary Webb
Pretext stops are central to the whole operation of racial profiling. Police claim they have specific reasons for pulling over drivers who they have targeted using racial profiles. Such stops have nothing to do with traffic safety.
In 1996 Whren v. U.S., a court case on pretext traffic stops, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld pretext stops in their ruling--saying that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop, regardless of whether the policeman was really intending to harass or investigate something else.
This ruling was a green light, from the highest level, for racist harassment by police.
White supremacy has historically been enforced to help carry out the accumulation of wealth and property in the U.S.--under all the various systems of exploitation from slavery to semi-feudal sharecropping to modern capitalism. The methods of special police targeting of oppressed nationalities have continued because the ruling class of today's capitalist system has supported and defended such policies--because such racist police practices serve the system by helping to confine and suppress millions of people within the poorest and most exploited sections of the working class.
In Part 3 of this series, we will discuss the exposures and coverups of the major "racial profiling" scandal within the New Jersey police departments--and we will examine the controversies over how such abuse can be ended.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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