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June 14, 2012

NAACP head condemns racial profiling

Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and CEO

Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and CEO

The president and CEO of the NAACP last week condemned what he termed the scourge of racial profiling in this country.

“We’ve got to stop it. Racial profiling is a lazy alternative to actually investigating crime,” said Benjamin Jealous in his keynote address celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the founding of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems, part of the School of Social Work.

“It is not who we are as a country. Racial profiling is suspicion of black people. Suspicion of black people generally is pervasive,” Jealous told a packed house in an Alumni Hall auditorium June 7.

“Our kids start day by day at school with the pledge: ‘One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ The pledge is the basis of our social contract. It is the best representation of our aspiration as a nation. And at the center of it is justice, liberty, civil rights. Justice for all is the foundation of our social contract,” he said.

“Our school children don’t think about it, they don’t take the pledge as a statement of faith. They believe that’s exactly where they live: the land of the free and the home of the brave, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

“If we have a duty as citizens, as patriots, as parents, as neighbors, it is to enforce and achieve our national aspiration of liberty and justice for all. But none of us yet lives in one nation, let alone one with liberty and justice for all.”

The same children who recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning too often are targeted because of their race and harassed and humiliated after school by the very people who are paid by tax dollars and who take an oath to protect and serve them, Jealous said.

The scourge is even worse for adults who are racially profiled, he added.

In New York City in 1999, 80,000 people underwent the so-called stop-and-frisk treatment championed by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and continued under current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under stop and frisk, police can detain whoever they deem is a suspicious person, pat the person down for concealed weapons and question the individual, ostensibly in order to prevent a crime. Police are sanctioned to use stop and frisk as a tactic using “reasonable suspicion” as a basis, a lower standard than “probable cause.”

To show racial profiling at its most pernicious, 90 percent of those detained in New York City were people of color, Jealous said. Last year in the city that number grew to more than 685,000 people detained, and this year the New York City police are on pace to stop more than 800,000.

Despite that 10-fold increase in stops since 1999, very few people stopped are found with guns, Jealous said. “In fact the total number of guns found has gone from 680 guns [in 1999] to 760 guns [in 2011].”

Jealous noted that Bloomberg is fond of bragging about the lower crime rate in New York City, which has seen a 29 percent decrease in crime over the last decade. But stop and frisk isn’t the reason, Jealous insisted.

“Los Angeles’s crime rate has decreased by 69 percent without this program. New Orleans lowered its crime rate 56 percent without this program. If truth be told, we are now at the lowest level of crime in this country since the Eisenhower administration,” he said.

jealous, davis

Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems last week celebrated its 10th anniversary as an organization devoted to bringing social issues involving race to the forefront through research, major national conferences, summer institutes and public lecture series. Left, keynote speaker Benjamin Jealous and School of Social Work Dean Larry Davis, who founded the center and serves as its director, pose at the June 7 Alumni Hall event.

Jealous reviewed a variety of cases from American history of police profiling going awry.

“History is prophecy. And it certainly repeats itself if you don’t understand it,” he said. “In 2002, not long after Sept. 11, Washington, D.C., was besieged by a sniper. People were being shot during rush hour, in the morning and in the evening, by the hand of someone with a high-powered rifle. It went on for days, without relenting.”

Several victims were targeted as they pumped gas or entered a convenience store. “People were told to bob-and-weave when they pumped gas,” a sure sign of desperation and panic, Jealous said.

“In the absence of a physical description, a profile went out. The profile said the sniper probably was military-trained; either a loner or someone who traveled in small groups; probably anti-social; probably male, and probably white,” he said.

“Think about looking for someone with that profile during rush hour. Police couldn’t focus on people who were traveling alone, because there are too many single-occupied vehicles. You couldn’t focus on people who are anti-social — that’s pretty much everybody during rush hour,” Jealous joked.

“Who did the police focus on? The police decided to focus on white men,” he said.

Then a clue emerged in the investigation that the sniper might be driving a white van.

“So the police focused on white man, white van,” he said. “When all was said and done, who do they arrest? They arrested a black man and a black boy [in a white van]. When the nightly news reported on an internal investigation, it came out that during the timeframe, that black man and black boy had been stopped nine times! Nine times! And the police never opened the trunk. If they opened the trunk, they would have found this huge rifle. The killer wore a military jacket with his name on it most of the time. Military-trained. He smelled bad because he only showered once a week, a sign of being anti-social. He fit the top three of the profile: military-trained, traveled in a small group, anti-social.

“That’s how well racial profiling works. When you put race in the description, the blinders go up. You’re talking to him nine times, and people are dying every day and you never open the trunk, even though the top three of the profile are there — the behavioral profile,” he said. “If race is used to profile a suspect in the absence of a physical description, you’re asking for trouble.

“If you inject race, if you inject gender, then people look past whole blocks of humanity,” Jealous maintained.

A historical example of profiling’s inadequacy based on gender was the instance of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a female disciple of murderer Charles Manson who, dressed in nun-like garb, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.

“For 100 years, the Secret Service had been told not to focus on women while protecting the president,” Jealous noted.

In 2002 a clean-cut white student from the University of Maryland who often traveled by plane inadvertently packed a box cutter — the same tool used as a weapon by the 9/11 attackers — in his suitcase. His box cutter was not discovered by airport security.

As an experiment, the student continued to test security by traveling with a concealed box cutter and other prohibited items but he never was detained, even as individuals who looked Middle Eastern were being stopped and searched. Eventually, after six successful attempts, the young man notified the Transportation Safety Administration of the security breaches.

“We’ve got to stop profiling,” Jealous said. “We’ll wake up one day and the president of the United States, the attorney general, the mayor, the sheriff, the FBI will just stop it and say from here on out, we’ll focus on behavior. To get to that point, first we have to document the problem. In the last 10 years, there has been a decade of silence. Congress has had no hearing on profiling since before 9/11. Maybe if we stop doing it, there also will be better relations between citizens and police.”

—Peter Hart

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