When I was first asked to write about racial profiling and police brutality in America, the scope of the topic seemed overwhelming. Where would one start? The fact that here in Germany, there is such interest in this topic is some what distressing. Is this what America is known for now? Has this issue become so prolific as to overshadow other elements of American current events? Well, I can understand why there is such an interest in this topic to a certain extent. The alternative would be perhaps a blog entry on mass shootings, or the sad state of our upcoming presidential elections. Yet, racial profiling and police brutality is an issue which is pervasive in the American culture. It is a portal back to our past, stains our current culture, and risks being continued in the future.
Racial Profiling in a Post-Racial Society
In America, racial profiling exists between citizens, and between the state and citizens. Police brutality is, strictly speaking, state violence against its citizens. After the election of Barack Obama, there has been much discussion in the United States of a ‚post-racial‘ society. The narrative follows along the lines of ’surely, now that there is black man in the White House, we as a society have moved past our racist history.‘ This is, of course, not true. Recent cases such as Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddy Grey, and Trayvon Martin have shown that racial profiling and police brutality against citizens by the state is actively employed. Police forces across the country use such tactics disproportionally against minority populations, both Black and Latino.
Police forces often show force against the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. For example, the New York City police department currently conducts a campaign known as ’stop-and-frisk‘ on innocent citizens. The ’stop-and-frisk‘ campaign encompasses encounters between citizens and the police where the police are allowed to stop and question a citizen when the police have ‚reasonable suspicion‘ about that citizen. By and large, the ’stop-and-frisk‘ campaign by the New York City police department is conducted against the minority community. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, “Black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of ten stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent.“ Furthermore, “stop-and-frisk activity confirm what many people in communities of color have long known: The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are Black and Latino“ Based on the available data, the stop-and-frisk campaign is on its face discriminatory against the Black and Latino communities of New York City. This is but just one example of the relationship between race and police use of force against citizens in America.
As stated by the New York Civil Liberties Union, citizens of the Black and Latino communities of New York City have known of racial discrimination on the part of the police for decades. However, this knowledge is not limited by geography, minority communities across America have known this for decades as well. This collective knowledge is passed through generations via the ‚talk‘ that parents of this community have with their children. This ‚talk‘ focuses on the inherent hesitation that Black and Hispanic children should have of the police, the constant awareness of how their presence and their behavior affects others, and the general unfairness that affects only members of their community. The fact that minority parents must have such a discussion with their children illustrates the pervasive and insidious nature of racial profiling. Such a practice has been going on for so long that it is institutionalized within American society. Issues of racial profiling and police brutality have been interwoven into American history.
Micro Aggressions as Part of the Problem
Even when discriminatory force is not overtly or obnoxiously used by law enforcement, minority citizens still feel the sting of racial profiling through subtle micro aggressions. Micro aggressions can be defined as “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.“ These offensive comments include statements like “I don’t see you as black“ or “Can I touch your hair?“. The aforementioned actions can be, for example, when a white woman holds onto her purse just a bit tighter when she sees a black man. Being on the receiving end of micro aggressions is a form a racial profiling that is insidious. The naïveté of such comments by others makes minority populations feel as if we do not belong. Micro aggressions happen with such regularity that they often go unnoticed by the non-minority population, but not to those whom such aggression is directed. This pervasive and insidious behavior is the most common form of racial profiling that exists in America.
Black Lives Matter
Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken hold of America. This movement has brought the issue of state brutality against the Black community to the forefront of American minds. It has fostered conversations regarding race relations, state power, and the unequal treatment of Black people. The Black Lives Matter movement is not without its critics – particularly those who counter that All Lives Matter, not merely Black ones. This statement is a slap in the face to the struggles being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter, no one can deny this, yet currently state aggression is aimed primarily at Black lives. It is those lives that matter, and until America realizes that they do, all lives cannot matter equally. Within the last two weeks, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police officers within a span of forty eight hours. This was followed by a retaliatory attack in Dallas, which left five police officers dead. Today, President Obama is set to travel to Dallas and pay his respects to these fallen police officers. He will surely make yet another speech referencing the ongoing violence and tensions between the police and citizens. He will undoubtedly call for calm, a respect for the rule of law, and the need for justice. These speeches have been made with such regularity that one can already hear what he will say before it is even said. Unfortunately, I feel that unless America can come to terms with its racist past and facilitate reconciliation, our President will have to continue making such speeches until he leaves office at the end of the year.
Police Complaint Bodies
In America, citizens may file complaints against the police through various police complaint bodies found within their respective cities. For example, in Chicago, citizens may file police complaints through the Independent Police Review Authority. This body is led entirely by civilians, and was created in 2007 by the City Council. In New York City, citizens file police complaints through the Civilian Complaint Review Board, created in 1993. It too is composed of civilians, and its findings are forwarded to the police commissioner. Criticisms that tend to arise about these two particular civilian police complaint bodies are that they are “flawed at so many levels“, leading to few police officers being disciplined, and that oversight of investigations notably breaks down at the discipline stage. For example, both complaint bodies forward their findings to the respective police commissioner, but the police commissioner is not bound by the complaint board’s findings. Furthermore, it is alleged that multiple city departments work in tandem to suppress evidence and allegations against officers, or work together to slow the investigation process. As eloquently stated by Lorenzo Davis, who worked as a supervisor for the Chicago Independent Police Review Board before suing the board in September 2015, “The public cannot trust anyone who is currently in the system.“ So whilst American citizens have the ability to file complaints about police misconduct, such independent police complaint bodies are not without their own faults, leading many civilians to believe in the futility of their existence.