Eradicate the scourge of racial profiling

October 27, 2003|By Erika Robles

THROUGHOUT THE years, the topic of racial profiling has brought a lot of controversy. Some observers allege that it doesn't exist; others dismiss such complaints as the exaggeration of hypersensitive minorities.

But President Bush reported in his February 2001 address to Congress that he had directed Attorney General John Ashcroft "to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling. It is wrong, and we must end it."

Historically, race and immigrant status are what tend to distinguish trivial misdeeds from official crimes, and bad crimes from intolerable ones.

According to the book The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States, in the 19th century, opium was a popular prescribed drug for middle-class women suffering from anxiety and other maladies. The use of this drug wasn't a criminal offense until large numbers of Chinese began arriving in the United States; authorities immediately outlawed their opium dens.

Likewise, marijuana was banned when fear arose in the 1930s that a visible and underemployed minority - Mexican-Americans - would be incited to violence while smoking it.

There's an abundance of stories and statistics that document the practice of racial profiling.

One involved U.S. Forest Service officers in California. In an attempt to stop marijuana growing, forest rangers were told to question all Hispanics whose cars were stopped.

Tim Crews, the publisher of The Sacramento Valley Mirror, published a memo he had received from a federal law enforcement officer. It told rangers that "if a vehicle stop is conducted and no marijuana is located and the vehicle has Hispanics inside, at a minimum we would like all individuals [field interrogated]."

There are other examples.

Here in Maryland, an Associated Press computer analysis of car searches from January through September 1995 found that 76 percent of the motorists stopped along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 by the state's Special Traffic Interdiction Force were black - even though blacks constituted just 25 percent of Maryland's population, and 20 percent of Marylanders with driver's licenses.

Some people allege that this racial profiling is a necessary component of modern crimefighting. Jackson Toby, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, argued in a 1999 Wall Street Journal article: "If drug traffickers are disproportionately black or Hispanic, the police don't need to be racist to stop many minority motorists; they simply have to be efficient in targeting potential drug traffickers."

The public perception that blacks and Hispanics are the principal perpetrators of drug crimes is unsubstantiated. While it's unquestionably true that some drugs find greater favor with one ethnic group over another, a study issued by Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy says that drug addiction reaches across all strata of society, with affluent, educated Caucasians being the most likely drug users.

It showed that more than half of those who admitted using heroin, 60 percent of monthly cocaine consumers and 77 percent of regular marijuana users were white. Youth drug use followed similar patterns.

Further, after two years of data being collected by all police departments in Rhode Island, the final report found that even though the majority of law enforcement agencies in the state disproportionately stopped and searched racial minorities, contraband was much more likely to be found when white drivers were searched.

So, if drug addicts and drug contrabandists are not primarily members of minority racial and ethnic groups, why is racial profiling still taking place?

Characterizations of people of color - Hispanics included - as menacing figures have long been a part of mainstream media and culture in the United States.

Today, young men of color are targeted because the system needs to keep a potentially explosive section of the working and oppressed classes under control. The harshest consequences of this program are experienced by low-wage workers and unemployed youths, predominantly Latinos and African-Americans.

Young minorities are thus made scapegoats by the ruling class. Rape, gangs, drug addiction, teen-age pregnancy, muggings, child abuse and unemployment are ascribed to their personal moral flaws, which contributes to the social perception of criminality, which fuels the police tactic of profiling.

Erika Robles, a contributing columnist to www.hispanicvista.com, lives in Eugene, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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