Racial profiling against blacks, immigrants and minorities has always existed in the American criminal justice system, as has the belief that minorities in general and blacks in particular are always more likely to commit crimes. Blacks and other minorities have a much greater chance of being arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison than whites, especially on drug charges, which is why they are the majority of the prison population today. Throughout the 20th Century, nonwhites were also sentenced to death and executed all out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population. American society and its legal system were founded on white supremacy going back to the colonial period, and critical race criminology would always consider these historical factors as well as the legal means to counter them. From the 17th Century onward, Black Codes and slave patrols were used to control the black population, and keep them confined to farms and plantations. Blacks did not have the right to trial by jury or to testify against whites, and the law punished them with greater severity, particularly if they committed crimes against whites. This has not changed up to the present (Glover 12). For the United States, “separate but equal” was the law of the land in many parts of the country until 1964, and while the separation by race was real equality certainly never existed (Glover 14). Racial profiling is a new name for a very old practice in the United States, and racial discrimination has always existed at every level of the criminal justice system.
Racism has always been related to other social and economic problems, especially poverty, police brutality, social class and lack of economic and educational opportunities. From the early-1970s, poverty and inequality in wealth and incomes have also increased, and this affected blacks more than any other group. By 2000, 1% of the population had almost half of the wealth in the United States, while police abuse and violence in the segregated ghettos was “disproportionately used against poor communities of color” (West viii). Nearly 10% of young black men were in prison and 40% of black children lived in poverty, but this was hardly part of the national political agenda (West 4). Blacks consumed about 12% of the drugs in the U.S. but were 70% of those convicted on drug charges (West xii).
Blacks are over 40% of the prison population because of biased enforcement of the drug laws and the fact that they are at least forty times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. Black children are over nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than whites, and three times more likely to live in single-parent families, and the high number of these is one of the major reasons about half of them live in poverty (Ihewulezi 43). Of the minority women in prison, over 80% are mothers, and their children often end up in foster care. Less than half of black single mothers receive child support “due to unemployment or the incarceration of the father of their children”, and this also means that a shortage of marriageable black males exists (Ihewulezi 44). All of these factors together lead to higher levels of poverty among blacks, and a higher likelihood of being racially profiled by to police, and thus the cycle of poverty and crime continues. Police targeting of minority groups has always been the norm in the U.S. and blacks are “disproportionately stopped and searched by police” all over the country (Cooper 25). Blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate in the United States, but young black males are ten times more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested on drug charges, and in many parts of the country, one-third to one-half of young black men are in jail or on parole or probation, a far higher number than are in college (Cooper 28).
In the use of capital punishment, backs and other minorities have always been more likely to be sentenced to death and executed than whites. There were fifty-two executions in the United States in 2009 and forty-six in 2010, with over 3,000 people waiting on death row for their sentences to be carried out. In most cases these never will be because of lengthy appeals and delays in the courts so for most of those convicted the death penalty is actually a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Death row inmates are overwhelmingly male, from a lower class background, and on average over 40% in 1977-2009 were black, even though blacks were only 12-13% of the population (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011). Thirty-six states and the federal government allowed capital punishment, which is mostly done by lethal injection rather than by hanging, gas or electrocution. This is considered a more humane method since the prisoner is rendered unconscious before the poison is administered. At times, doctors and nurses have participated in these executions, which are meant to have a ‘clinical’ look and feel, although this is most definitely a violation of all medical ethics (Marzilli 12). Capital punishment was often an issue in elections from the 1960s onward, with conservative Republicans regularly denouncing liberal Democrats for being ‘soft on crime’. In the 1988 elections, George H. Bush attacked Michael Dukakis for a parole program in Massachusetts that released a black inmate named Willie Horton, who went on to commit rape and murder (Marzilli, p. 13). In 1992, Bill Clinton made sure to order the execution of a mentally retarded black prisoner in Arkansas to demonstrate that who was a law-and-order candidate who supported capital punishment, while George W. Bush bragged that he had never granted clemency or commuted a death sentence when he was governor of Texas.
Even educated and middle class blacks frequently experienced discrimination and racial profiling in everyday life, from taxis that refused to pick them to being frequently stopped and searched on the highways (Driving While Black) and commonly suspected of theft and shoplifting (Shopping While Black). White America only noticed this occasionally, such as the riots that occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King. Motorists suing state governments over Driving While Black and excessive police stops and searches of black drivers were the first to bring this form racial profiling to the attention of the white public and mass media, although blacks had known about it for a very long time. Historically, blacks who drove expensive or flashy cars were always more likely to be stopped by police on suspicion that the vehicles were stolen or they were carrying drugs. Racial profiling began to be applied to drivers on interstate highways, once again with young black males becoming the most frequent target. Robert Vogel of the Florida state police is usually credited for developing the Driving While Black profile, as part of Operation Pipeline on Interstate 95. He found that young minority men driving late model or rented cars, traveling early in the morning and reluctant to make eye contact with the police were most likely to be stopped and searched (Kops 37). Other tell-tale signs were radar detectors, little luggage, out of state license plates and overly cautious driving. With anyone who fit this profile, police would stop the vehicle on the pretext of a traffic violation and then if they owners refused to allow them to search it would bring in drug sniffing dogs.
Black drivers who fit the racial profile would frequently be stopped, often dozens or hundreds of times, although in the vast majority of cases no drugs were found. Timothy Thomas, a young black man in Cincinnati, was stopped by police eleven times in eight weeks in 2001 and received twenty-one citations. He was finally shot and killed by the police, which led to “massive civil unrest and rioting” in April 2001 (Cooper 26). One police chief in Pennsylvania admitted that young black males in fancy cars, driving in white neighborhoods or wearing gold chains were almost certain to be stopped every time the police saw them (Cooper 27). In fact, the racial profile generally overlaps with what police call a ‘thug profile’ that always includes the color and age of the driver, time of day, type of vehicle and general appearance.
Robert Wilkins, a Harvard-educated attorney and public defender, was pulled over by the Maryland state police in 1992, and they brought in the drug sniffing dogs when he refused them permission to search his car. He later filed a lawsuit against them with the American Civil Liberties Union, and soon many more of these legal actions were filed in other states. Blacks also learned not to drive expensive cars, to dress very conservatively and not make and sudden movements or gestures when stopped by the police. Even Los Angeles assistant district attorney Christopher Darden, who was prosecuting O.J. Simpson, was pulled over by police five times during the trial because he drove a Mercedes (Kops 48). By 1998, the U.S. Justice Department admitted that racial profiling reflected “a pattern of discrimination against minorities” and a Gallup poll the next year found that 81% disapproved of it (Kops 49). In 2002, the administration of George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft sent out a Justice Department Fact Sheet stating that “racial profiling is discrimination, and it taints the entire criminal justice system” (Justice Department Fact Sheet 2006). Bush ordered its use halted by all federal agencies, even in terrorism cases, and only allowed stops and searches to be conducted against individuals who fit the description of known suspects. Racial characteristics and general stereotypes were not to be used in federal law enforcement except in the identification of specific suspects.
Random drug testing is also a major barrier to employment and education of minority youth in the United States, who already face high levels of poverty and discrimination. This is part of a well-established pattern of background checks, credit checks and raced-based suspensions and expulsions in the public schools that disproportionately affect minority groups (Fox 3). In the United States over 75% of blacks still live in segregated neighborhoods that are often crowded, dangerous, lacking in social services, employment and educational opportunities. In fact, these segregated areas are racially profiled and redlined, not only by law enforcement but by banks, insurance companies and other businesses and government agencies. Police do not enforce civil rights and open housing laws in this country, nor do they protect blacks from violence and discrimination if they attempt to move into white areas. Segregation in residential and economic life “makes it difficult to solve other problems connected to poor communities, such as crime, violence, poor health, high mortality, and abandonment of houses”, all of which have worsen greatly in the current recession (Ihewulezi 47).
Crack cocaine was generally perceived a as ‘ghetto’ drug on inner-city youth, and the penalties for its possession and distribution were heavier than for powdered cocaine. Of course, the latter was more expensive, and appealed to young whites of middle or upper class status in the 1970s and 1980s. During the War on Drugs, the U.S. prison population became the highest in the world, and no country incarcerates a larger percentage of its population. A very harsh and regressive drug policy has created a prison-industrial complex in the U.S., with its own lobbyists and contractors demanding harsher sentences and more construction of prisons, which are also being turned over to private contractors. No one really spends much time and effort with rehabilitation, education or drug prevention among these black and Hispanic youth, who have often been locked up for life under the three strikes laws. This is not new in American history, since the double standard and dual system of justice for blacks has always existed in the United States, going back to the time of slavery. The current War on Drugs is simply a continuation of business as usual in that respect and “certain drugs have served as a proxy for racial and ethnic bias”, and this has been true throughout American history (Wilson and Kolander 8).
Unlike the era of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, no mass political and social movement is likely to arise in this era to correct these problems of racial profiling and the incredible overrepresentation of young black males in the criminal justice system. Black communities have become alienated and demoralized over the last forty years due to drugs, gangs and massive police crackdowns. Angry, alienated youth in these ghettos realize that there is no place for them in American society, and adopt music, culture, lifestyles and sexual behaviors that emphasize their separation from white, mainstream society, even though black conservatives condemn this. There was hardly likely to be any significant political and economic transformation of America in the era of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, or it seems even under Barack Obama. In fact, even Obama found that he had to walk back his comments about white police officers in Boston who had evidently profiled and mistreated his friend Henry Louis Gates, and he was obviously very cautious in any public statements that he ever made about racial issues. Clearly racial profiling continues to be used at the state and federal level, despite the lawsuits and formal declarations by the Justice Department that it has been discontinued, at least on the federal level. Given the level of economic and social disparities in American society, which have increased greatly in the present recession, racial profiling is hardly likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.
Capital Punishment. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011.
Dowding, M. Privacy: Defending an Illusion. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
Cooper, S. “A Closer Look at Racial Profiling” in S.J. Muffler (ed). Racial Profiling: Issues, Data and Analyses. Nova Science Publishers, 2006: 25-30.
Fox, H. When Race Breaks Out: Conversations about race and Racism in College Classrooms. NY: Peter Lang, 2009.
Glover, K.S. Racial Profiling: Research, Racism and Resistance. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
Ihewulezi, C.N. The History of Poverty in a Rich and Blessed America. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2008.
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Maisto, S.A. et al (eds). Drug Use and Abuse, 6th Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010..
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Racial Profiling Fact Sheet (2002) in Muffler, Racial Profiling: 41-47.
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Wilson, R. and C.A. Kolander. Drug Abuse Prevention: A School and Community Partnership. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011.