Ethnic cleansing

April 10, 1996|By Herbert J. Hoelter

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The recent arrest and jailing of John Oliver Jr., the owner and publisher of the Afro-American, mirrors an experience I had in downtown Baltimore five years ago.

On a quiet Sunday morning my assistant coach and I were driving our basketball team, mostly minority kids, to a tournament game on the east side of town. He followed me down Pratt Street with four of our 12- to 14-year-old players, including his son, in his car. I had our other five players in my station wagon.

A police car pulled him over. I immediately stopped and went to his car. The officer told him he had failed to signal when changing lanes and to remain in the car. Within five minutes three other police cars and a police wagon pulled up, lights flashing. The police officer told my assistant there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest and to ''assume the position.'' He was frisked, handcuffed and taken away in front of his son and our entire team. His wife bailed him out of jail six hours later. The warrant was for failing to pay a traffic ticket for not wearing his seat belt. As is Mr. Oliver, my coach is African-American.

Having directed a national criminal-justice organization since 1977, I have watched in anguish how the justice system has contributed to the racial polarization in our country and to the fear of young black men that now permeates our communities. Rather than isolated occurrences, incidents such as those involving my assistant coach and Mr. Oliver are becoming commonplace.

A few months ago, an African-American business executive, Earl Graves Jr., got off the morning commuter train at Grand Central Station in New York and was rousted by two police officers who grabbed his briefcase and frisked him as hundreds of commuters looked on. The police were looking for an African-American man 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with short hair and a mustache. Mr. Graves is 6-foot-4 and clean shaven.

Two months later, an assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal was rushing from a Broadway play with his elderly mother to catch a subway so she could make her train to Philadelphia. Her token didn't work in the turnstile, so they both went through on his token. For this offense, they both spent the next 24 hours on Riker's Island, New York's maximum-security detention center. They were African-Americans.

Why is this occurring? Who is to blame? What can be done about it? We must address these questions if we want to heal the fragile race relations in our communities.

It is easy to blame the police and to characterize police departments as racist. They are easy targets because they make the arrests, but they are merely symptoms of the deeper problem -- that our country's criminal-justice system is out of control. Over the past decade, the United States has conducted a massive and expensive experiment in which we have arrested and incarcerated citizens at a rate never before seen in our history. The majority of those caught in this dragnet have been African-American.

A backward look

To understand how we got to this point, it is necessary to step back in time. Between 1900 and 1980, our country's rate of imprisonment stayed fairly steady. Through two world wars, the Great Depression, the civil-rights unrest of the 1960s and the counter-culture movement of the 1970s, our country's imprisonment rate hovered around 100 inmates per 100,000 citizens. That figure started to skyrocket in the 1980s, reaching 555 people per 100,000 citizens in 1994.

The change began in the mid-1980s, when President Reagan declared a war on drugs and committed the resources of the federal government to fight it. Almost overnight, mandatory sentencing laws were passed by Congress and imitated by states; drug task forces, seizure statutes and group arrests became the norm. Federal funds for prison construction, drug-enforcement initiatives and drug prosecutors flowed freely. Tough-on-crime became a campaign slogan, and Willie Horton became a poster boy for George Bush's 1988 presidential race.

The targets of this ''war'' strategy became minority communities. Partly this happened because drugs present a larger problem in many of these communities, where drug use and sale is more open and where some young men and women who became socially disenfranchised found ''job opportunities.'' However, it also happened because police chose to enforce the laws in those areas, even though drug use was often just as prevalent in white communities a few miles away.

Whatever the reason, before long the public's stereotype of a young black man dressed in a jogging suit, wearing jewelry and driving a new car, was that he was either a drug user or a drug dealer. As the ''welfare cheat'' symbol developed in the early 1980s, the stereotype was set. Soon young black men were being rounded up at a rate never before experienced in our history.

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