Time to Stop Police Racial Profiling

By Hugh B. Price


National Urban League

With a new, conservative administration in office, it's once again become fashionable to declare American society can solve its racial problems simply by declaring race is no longer important and stop talking about it. The oped columns and letters columns of the nation's newspapers are awash with such notions.

This is the same chorus counseling denial and a studied ignorance which has piped up periodically during the last two decades. But the modern trappings put on the idea can't hide its true, tawdry origins: This is the same attitude which in the decades before the Civil Rights Movement taught America how to be a democracy helped enforce a rigid orthodoxy of tolerating discrimination against African Americans and everyone else who was not white.

Denying that benighted racial attitudes and actions are a problem in America is not the solution to their existence. That reality cannot be smoothed over by glib rhetoric; the truth of what blacks face in too many areas of American life is too obvious.

There is no more dramatic example of this than police racial profiling; and there is no more dramatic example of the grip this racist practice has on American life than the current efforts underway in New Jersey to unravel how and how long the practice was carried out by the New Jersey State Police.

This is a story in which getting to the full truth seems to be a never-ending task.

Two years after state officials, after years of denial, acknowledged that the state police had a policy of stopping black and Hispanic motorists solely because of their race and ethnicity, a state legislative committee is investigating whether officials actually knew this was so much earlier but covered up the information for political purposes.

The inquiry has yet to conclude. But, frankly, the testimony thus far given by aides to the former state attorney general have painted, as a recent New York Times report noted, "a picture of the halting, defensive manner in which New Jersey's higher-ranking law enforcement officials came to grips in 1997 with racial profiling—a problem they would not publicly acknowledge for two more years."

In one sense, we are not surprised. As William Buckman, the lawyer in the New Jersey case which in 1996 first established that racial profiling was occurring, told the Times, the testimony "puts flesh on the bones of what so many of us have been saying for years."

The New Jersey case alone, which follows significant findings of racial profiling by state police in Maryland, Florida, and other states, is one of the many examples which stand as a rebuke to the prattling that it's time to put the discussion of race

behind us. Those who advocate this view always retreat into silence when the topic of racial profiling, or any of the other kinds of discrimination people of color face, comes up.

Fortunately, some, including law enforcement officials, have not retreated from grappling with the problem. As the evidence of racial profiling's reach and seriousness mounted in the late 1990s, former Attorney General Janet Reno convened a panel of law enforcement officials and representatives of civil rights and civil liberties groups, the National Urban League included, to recommend police reforms that would eliminate it.

The new Attorney General, John Ashcroft, has pledged to carry on the effort. The importance of that promise was underscored last week by a new Justice Department report finding that African-American drivers were more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped, searched, handcuffed or ticketed by police.

Mr. Ashcroft correctly pointed out that the report, because of its relatively narrow scope, did not actually prove the existence of racial profiling. He said he has asked Congress to authorize a national study of racial profiling in order to measure how prevalent the practice is at local traffic stops.

We're all for further study of the problem—but not at the expense of tackling this problem head on. Mr. Ashcroft said that if Congress did not "promptly" authorize a national study, "then, frankly, we will move forward."

That's good to hear, because racial profiling is not an abstraction, but a problem that law-abiding Americans like John Lovick face every day.

Writing in the March 13 Seattle Times, Mr. Lovick, who is African American, and a state legislator, and a sergeant in the Washington State Police, recounted an incident that occurred several years ago on a day off when he stopped at a roadway rest stop and was spoken to by a local police officer who was inspecting his truck and trailer "with complete disrespect. It wasn't until I explained to him that I was a Washington State Patrol officer that his tone changed." ‘

However, Mr. Lovick continued, "[e]ven after he apologized for the misunderstanding, all I could think about was how I might have been treated if I hadn't been an officer. After all, I was a man—who happened to be black—trying to enjoy a Saturday afternoon fishing trip."

This is part of the reality of being black in America, even for those as committed to serving America as a John Lovick. This is why race is not going to disappear as a significant topic of discussion no matter what the racial ostriches want.

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