Racial Profiling Must End

There is no way to sugarcoat what happened recently in Minnesota: Jeronimo Yanez quite literally got away with murder. For reasons that I am still struggling to fully understand, Yanez was acquitted on manslaughter charges. This is despite the fact that: 1) Castile was NOT involved in a robbery, contrary to what the cops thought or said they thought when they pulled him over; 2) He warned Yanez that he had a gun but would not reach for it; 3) He was complying with instructions by trying to remove his wallet from his pocket. I do not know if the jurors who voted to acquit were motivated by racism. One white juror stated that she and other white jurors talked to the two black members of the jury and concluded that Castile had not been racially profiled leading to the shooting. But regardless of the jurors’  motivation, the verdict was asinine and unconscionable. The fact that the Twin Cities and the surrounded suburbs have not erupted in riots probably does speak to relatively liberal attitudes and lower racial tensions in Minnesota compared with the country in general. Had this shooting and acquittal happened in, say, Baltimore, St. Louis, or even Milwaukee, particularly during the Summer, it is hard to imagine that there would not have been large-scale rioting. At the same time, twelve people egregiously failed to do their duty and bring a murderer to justice, despite the unambiguous evidence in front of them. And this case has demolished the frequent claim that complying with police instructions automatically guarantees the safety of civilians. But I believe that the shooting of Philando Castile underscores the importance of having a discussion about another matter: the urgent need to ban racial profiling.

Prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, we had a string of three presidents who all said pretty much exactly the right things about racial profiling by government officials but did not spend a significant amount of political capital to pass legislation against it. I am a strong admirer of Obama, am very tepid about Clinton, and consider Bush to have been a terrible president. That does not change the fact that all of them denounced racial profiling yet failed to adequately push for the necessary reforms. A key reason for this is probably 9/11. By 2000, racial profiling had become a high profile political issue. If people thought about racial profiling, it was generally, though not always, racial profiling against African Americans and Latino Americans by cops. And there was considerable bipartisan support for trying to end it. Bush and Gore staked out relatively similar positions on the issue, and by August of 2001, Congress was holding hearings on federal anti-racial profiling legislation. Once and future NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly testified about how racial profiling was inexcusable and damaging to law enforcement and warned that if local police departments failed to adequately curb it, federal intervention might be needed.

A month later, 9/11 happened, effectively ruining the possibility of a federal ban on racial profiling for years to come. Suddenly, more people were thinking about the issue of profiling Arab Americans at airports, and some evidence suggests that a significant number of people who generally oppose racial profiling make an exception for Arab Americans.  The Bush and Obama Administrations both issued directives against racial profiling by federal officials, but these orders could be reversed by Trump and do not apply to state and local police. Thus, laws on racial profiling vary by state and city. Many states and cities, including Minnesota, have explicitly banned its use by law enforcement. Many others have not. There are a host of reasons why racial profiling should be ended. It is blatantly discriminatory and unjust under any circumstances. There is no excuse to treat someone as a possible criminal based partly or exclusively on their race. But as wrong as it is when a white person turns the other way because they see a black person, it is even worse when law enforcement officials racially profile, because it necessarily involves coercion by agents of the State. When law enforcement racially profiles, nonwhite Americans can be followed, stopped, interrogated, and searched by police when white Americans would not be. Racial profiling, which has existed since the days of slavery, is yet another example of government mistreatment of minorities. It is of specious practical benefit to investigations. Supporters of racial profiling would have encouraged law enforcement to profile Crystal Griner and David Bailey and ignore James Hodgkinson. As I explained in a blog post back in February, “In 1901, President William McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York. Secret Service Agent George Foster became preoccupied by the presence of a six-and-a half foot tall black man named James Parker. In fact, he was so preoccupied by the perceived threat from Parker that he failed to notice the white man standing in front of Parker, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz, as it turned out, fatally shot McKinley. Admittedly, Parker did get involved in the shooting—by punching Czolgosz and wrestling him to the ground.” And racial profiling poisons police-community relations, making everyone less safe.

But the murder of Castile highlights the fact that racial profiling can literally be a matter of life and death. Audio evidence from a police scanner shows that Castile was stopped because cops thought he resembled “one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide-set nose.” Essentially, Castile was a black man, possibly had a wide-set nose, and that was considered enough of a reason for him to possibly be the same person who robbed a store and a justification for pulling him over. This is an important point to unpack. If a twenty-five year old, 5’10”, burly black man with a baseball cap and a chunk of his right ear missing robs a bank, and police see someone matching that description driving down the road, most people would agree that pulling him over and questioning him would not constitute racial profiling. But a black man with a wide-set nose is a very basic description that could include any number of people, making it fairly apparent that Castile was racially profiled. Had Castile not been racially profiled, he would have never been pulled over, which means that Yanez would have never shot him. Thus, Governor Mark Dayton’s statement that Castile would still be alive had he not been black was quite true. One of the defenses of racial profiling has been that it supposedly represents only a minor inconvenience to the people profiled. (While some nonwhite Americans have unfortunately defended racial profiling, it is probably mostly white people who think being profiled based on race is normally just a minor inconvenience.) Therefore, the argument goes, innocent people of color who get profiled partly or entirely because of their race should grit their teeth and bear it for the sake of preventing crime. But as the shooting of Castile demonstrates, racial profiling can be downright deadly. Once an innocent person is identified as a potential criminal, there is an increased possibility that either the police officer or civilian will feel on edge and that tensions will escalate to a deadly conclusion. And if police are encouraged to profile black people, than it will be very unsurprising if they end up more likely to get nervous and shoot black people. Other people have made similar points in the past, but hopefully, more people understand now just how dangerous racial profiling is.

In March of this year, the End Racial Profiling Act was yet again introduced in Congress. The bill prohibits the use of racial profiling by law enforcement, which it defines as “the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial investigatory procedure, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person with a particular characteristic described in this paragraph to an identified criminal incident or scheme.” This is generally a good definition, but the legislation must make clear that when a criminal has been identified as being of a certain race, that does not give police the right to label anyone with some vague physical resemblance as a suspect. Rather, there needs to be clearly defined parameters to ensure that people who are stopped and questioned based on their appearance actually match a detailed description of the suspect or that there is other strong evidence linking that individual to the crime. Simply identifying the suspect as a black man with “wide-set nose” should not cut it. If principled conservatives and libertarians find aspects of the proposed legislation too bureaucratic, they should propose their own anti-racial profiling legislation. But the time is long past for us to take decisive steps to at least try to end racial profiling in America.

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