As an African-American male that grew up in the Deep South, I was taught at an early age to steer clear of the police. I never recall my family members happily greeting officers at a coffee shop, or stopping to ask them for directions. If you asked most people in my community what the first word they thought of when you say “cop”, they would probably respond with “dangerous”. In my small-town, most of the police were white men, and unfortunately, almost everyone I know has had a negative experience with them.
That everyone includes me. The first time it happened, I was 17, working at Sonic restaurant on a late Saturday night. It was about 1 am, past curfew for teenagers in our town, but there was still a group of kids that were just hanging around at the drive-in stalls. By now the only two people in the store was myself and Wes, the manager. As I got ready to clock out, Wes went outside to tell the kids to go home. I opened the door at the back of the restaurant, walked out and headed for my car. Then suddenly I heard the blare of a police siren, and a cop car pulled right in front of me.
“Excuse me young man… do you know what time it is?”
–“Yes sir, which is why I’m headed home right now”
“Well what are you doing out this time of night?” (He asks this after seeing me leave the store, in work clothes and wreaking of fryer grease)
–“Sir I’m just leaving work. But there’s several teenagers at the front of the store that are loitering.”
“Are you trying to be smart with me?”
And then my manager comes out…
—“Hello officer is there anything I can help you with? This young man has just worked a very long six-hour shift, and he needs to get home and get some rest. If you’re looking for some kids to discourage, they’re right there at the front of the store.”
“Well I’ll leave you to get back over to the Hill then. But you better go straight home.” (the Hill is where all the black people lived in our town, and yes at this time it really was ALL of them).
And that was my very first experience with Racial Profiling. Sadly, it’s not been my last. Even since moving to Houston, I have been wrongfully stopped by an HPD policeman, handcuffed and detained in a vehicle while my car was searched for drugs, only to be let go when the officers didn’t find anything. Out of pure fear, I simply drove away, wrists still scarred from the tight handcuffs. I didn’t have the good sense to file a report of the incident at the time. But knowing how often this situation happens to others, I really wish I had filed that report.
Which is why I am sharing this in the blog… to put yet another face to the statistics. For all of the hard-working police that are out there risking their lives to keep us safe, there are still too many that take advantage of citizens when they see an opportunity to do so. And even in 2013, African-Americans are still some of the most vulnerable. According to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union and independently reviewed by the New York Times, African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites, whether they actually have any drugs or not. This is despite the fact that reported usage of marijuana is virtually even among blacks and whites. The reason that the arrests are so much higher for black citizens? Because those citizens are targeted by the police, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. You can look at the reports, or you can learn from personal experience, but racial profiling continues to be a sad fact of life in the United States.
Racial profiling has a long and well-documented history. In Houston, the Chad Holley case is a recent example, where a teenager was savagely beaten by a gang of rabid HPD officers. It’s important to note that none of these officers currently work for the Houston Police Department, and each of them have either been put to trial or currently on trial for the case. But from the brutality in this tape, it’s a shame that they were hired in the first place.
Our nation’s misguided drug laws only add fuel to the fire of racial profiling. It gives those “bad apples” in law enforcement a powerful tool to harass citizens that THEY assume to be suspicious. And more often than not, suspicion turns out to be black and brown. As a result, we continue to misuse our community resources on nonviolent offenders, while the true, dangerous criminals roam the streets. But if someone is wrongfully arrested, and put in jail, that creates an arrest record. The once nonviolent offender is now marked for life, and set up for failure by being regulated to limited educational and economic advancement. It’s a vicious cycle that promotes discrimination, and that’s why it has to stop. Hopefully our nation will learn from states like Washington and Colorado that decriminalizing drug possession helps to save lives, discourage racial profiling, and save money for their taxpayers.