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Racial Profiling in the US: breaking down the relevance of the national protests

January 14, 2015

By Barbara Matias – Research Assistant

In the 1960s, the American Civil Rights Movement took the country by storm. Decades later, and well into the new century, the recent tragic events of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have questioned national unity and the genuine lasting effects of this famed movement in the United States.

With over 318 million inhabitants[1], the United States prides itself in being a melting pot of multicultural diversity, displaying a population in which 79.96% are white, 12.85% are black, 4.43% are Asian, and the remaining minor percentages gather other ethnicities. On the other hand, with over 240 years of slavery and more than 90 years of legal segregation under its belt, the United States may be realizing it created a legacy of understated racialised policing and an engrained white privilege in society.

In recent weeks, American society and politics have been shaken by grand jury verdicts dictating two cops in two separate cases would not be facing charges for the death of black men – controversial deaths that have since awoken national waves of relentless protests from all ages and races, clamoring for justice and equality in police treatment. Entire streets and bridges have been blocked and fiery social media hashtags have caused a worldwide stir. While stances that depict the entire police force as racist and abusive are invalid and uncalled for, these events have drawn needed attention to the law enforcement’s subtle differential treatment towards African-Americans. This presents itself as a modern tale of discrimination and possibly the catalyst that brings about the final stage of the Civil Rights Movement that begun many years ago at the heart of the leading Western society.

Michael Brown was 18 years old when he was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of 2014, catapulting a national reaction and a series of significant ongoing social events. Wilson was called to the scene after a police dispatcher alerted him to a robbery in progress. Upon finding Brown, the individual matching the dispatcher’s earlier physical description, on the street, a physical altercation between the two took place and, less than two minutes after their encounter, Wilson fired six shots at an unarmed Brown.

Conflicting witness accounts complicate the already hot question of race as a factor in the shooting: whereas some eye witnesses say Brown had started to raise his hands (prompting the #HandsUp hashtag), others describe him as violent towards Wilson. The streets of Ferguson soon reacted to the death of the unarmed black teen and became dominated by immense social disorder, with day and night protests, marches and vandalism met with police tear gas and arrests. Putting the event into context, we find that Ferguson, a small city in the Midwestern American state of Missouri, shows some relevant demographics[2] that heighten the frustration of its population towards the Police Department: while 67% of its population is African American, only 29% are identified as white; on the other hand, out of its 53 officers, 48 are white and only 3 black, clearly not well representing the racial demographics of the community.

Faced with the tragic event that fired up a core social issue within the community, Ferguson has since been suffering from civil unrest, which only intensified after the November grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, and another equally polemic outcome to a similar race-oriented death, that of Eric Garner.

While Brown’s case presents differing accounts and serious ambiguities, the same cannot be said about Eric Garner’s. Garner was 43 years old, a husband and a father when, on July 17th 2014, he died from compression of the head at the hands of several NYPD officers on a Staten Island street, and the entire incident was caught on video. Garner’s case represents another tragic episode which fueled national outrage, adding to the already heated debate arising from the earlier Ferguson events.

In the video we see Garner being approached by two officers on the suspicion of illegally selling a single packet of cigarettes without a tax stamp on the streets, and immediately retorted declaring to be ‘’minding his own business’’ and for them to ‘’leave him alone’’. With this, the officers moved in on Garner and one put his arm forcefully around his neck, pushing him face down into the pavement and leading the asthmatic Garner to desperately mutter ‘’I can’t breathe’’ several times before losing consciousness and eventually a pulse. Read the entire transcript of the video below:

Get away [garbled] … for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me [garbled] selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please, please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

The video exposes an abusive handling of the situation by the police officers involved, for the chokehold is forbidden by NYPD protocol. Barely a week after the grand jury decision on the Michael Brown-Darren Wilson case, the same conviction-free verdict was reached for Officer Daniel Palanteo in the Eric Garner case.

The incident, and consequent lack of accountability, generated country-wide shock and condemnation by authority figures. New York mayor Bill de Blasio called[3] the case ‘’very troubling’’ and ‘’a terrible tragedy’’, which rightfully ‘’put a spotlight on police-community relations and civil rights – some of most critical issues our nation faces today’’. President Obama also voiced his support to the cause, for it ‘’speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way’’[4]. As did the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, releasing an official statement that read ‘’I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row’’[5]. These authority figures highlight precisely why the outrage and protests has touched people of all States, races and ages: it is a longstanding issue that threatens national unity, besides presenting a menace to civil rights.

In the wake of both verdicts allowing unaccountability and the base issue of a persistent racialised policing, an ongoing mass movement has begun, urging for change, accountability and equality – clamors that have been heard by President Obama and Mayor de Blasio, who have both since hosted protesters and pushed for official investigations and reforms in the police force. Country-wide mass rallies overtook roads, bridges and national landmarks, with protesters chanting ‘’I can’t breathe’’ and simulated ‘die-ins’ – with parallels to the significant ‘sit-ins’ of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which eventually prompted the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending legal racial segregation throughout the country) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With slavery and segregation already behind them, this modern type of bias and discrimination is clearly being tackled in a modern way as well, using new platforms to reach more people and get their message out. Besides NBA and NFL players sporting ‘I Can’t Breathe’ warm up uniforms, on social media, condemnatory hashtags such as #Icantbreathe dominated the web to raise awareness. In fact, an unfortunate tweet from the NYPD that read ‘’The NYPD is committed to rebuilding public trust. #WeHearYou’’, backfired terribly by generating responses such as ‘’except when we say we can’t breathe’’[6], or ‘’And that, kids, is a great example of the difference between “hearing” and “listening’’’’[7].

I Can’t Breathe’ became a staple of the Eric Garner protest movement, adding to the ‘Hands Up’ or ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ slogans of the Michael Brown case, and the widespread ‘Black Lives Matter’ seen on signs from coast to coast protests. Another trending hashtag was #CrimingWhileWhite, in which white people confess crimes officers let them get away with easy to point out the double standard and bias in society and, consequently, in policing; for example ‘’Shoplifted when I was a teenager. Was apprehended but never charged because I looked “like a good kid” #CrimingWhileWhite’’[8]. As a matter of fact, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll[9] revealed only 40% of American think race relations in the United States are ’’good’’, while the majority disagreed and 23% assessed them as ‘’very bad’’. This is not only a far cry from the 52% majority that last year felt optimistic, but also the lowest score since 1995.

Faced with these repetitive incidents and the blows they have dealt to national unity, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also voiced her opinion on the cases, reminding that ‘’despite all the progress we’ve made together, African Americans, most particularly African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms’’[10]. She is right – the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently (September 25th 2014) released its concluding observations and recommendations for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination in the United States[11], painting an alarming picture. Although it salutes the United States for acknowledging that ‘’racial or ethnic profiling is not effective law enforcement practice and is inconsistent with its commitment to fairness in the justice system’’, it hastened to add that ‘’the Committee remains concerned at the practice of racial profiling of racial or ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials’’. The report is also clear in noting ‘’the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans’’ and advises that prompt and far-reaching reforms take place in order to monitor and remedy these disparities. For example, the End Racial Profiling Act is a piece legislation that has been held up in Congress since July 2013, which defines ‘racial profiling’ as ‘’the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement’’[12], stating ‘’no law enforcement agent or law enforcement agency shall engage in racial profiling’’. Given the troubling context, the Committee went on to express concern over the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials ‘’against members of racial and ethnic minorities, including against unarmed individuals, which has a disparate impact on African Americans’’11. Following these reports, it must be reiterated that the police force shouldn’t be portrayed as the enemy: police officers put their safety on the line for the safety of others. They make life and death decisions every day and under intense pressure in order to protect and serve a community. When faced with apparent immediate threats, police officers have very little time to decide how to react. While we’ve seen there is a well-documented history of bias, having a society with an underlining hostility between the police force and the civilians is all but the purpose of the protests and the lessons that should come from these tragedies. Tensions and suspicions must be defused to allow the needed cooperation between the two and to prevent other ill-advised incidents.

Despite the United States being a country that formally guarantees equal civil rights – having, following its Civil Rights Movement, signed in 1969 the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that reiterates that ‘’each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists’’[13] – these incidents and the aforementioned reports reveal a well-documented bias. While we must be careful when analyzing these polemic topics, as it could be easy to run the risk of hastily and unfairly categorizing all officers as racial profilers and partial towards minorities, this is a serious and needed debate. It is a modern tale of discrimination – one that is subtle and easy to shrug off, since it showcases racial bias in a developed country that has long ago officially prohibited overt racism. Be it in former incarcerated white men having less difficulty in finding jobs than black ones (in its 2003 research paper The Mark of a Criminal Record[14], the American Journal of Sociology even concluded that ‘’whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment than blacks without criminal records’’), or in policing, it is an all too real injustice that the Michael Brown and the Eric Garner cases have shed light on.

Through equally modern platforms, Americans have brought forward the long-needed debate that intertwines justice, race and policing, clamoring for justice and equality, be it through nation-wide protests or illustrative hashtags that spread worldwide. Perhaps the challenges surpassed in the 20th century have met new adversities in the complexity of the 21st century. ‘’This is an American problem’’, declared President Obama, ‘’when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem’’ – While it certainly currently is an American problem, it alludes to a global issue, one that must be aptly monitored.

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html

[2] http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap/ipmtext.php?fl=29:2923986

[3] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/540-14/statement-mayor-bill-de-blasio#/0

[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/12/03/president-obama-delivers-statement-grand-jury-decision-death-eric-garner

[5] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15342&LangID=E

[6] Twitter User DavidDTSS

[7] Twitter User Stevehelling

[8] Twitter User auragasmic

[9] http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/poll-57-percent-americans-say-race-relations-u-s-are-n269491

[10] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/4/hillary-clinton-we-have-allowed-our-criminal-justi/


[12] https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/2851/text

[13] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CERD.aspx

[14] http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/374403

About Barbara Matias

Bárbara Matias is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. Her research interests include the enforcement of human rights, gender issues in the developing world, transatlantic relations and the Middle East.