Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop & Frisk

The NYPD's Stop & Frisk policy is currently the subject of a federal court case and of many news reports. The policy allows police officers who have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed or is about to commit a crime to stop and question them. If the officer then has reasonable suspicion that he is in danger of physical injury, he can frisk the suspect for weapons. During such frisks, suspects are asked to empty their pockets, which has in many instances led to convictions for drug possession. Four men who claim that they were stopped by the police solely due to racial profiling are challenging the policy in federal court, and there is some pretty good data to back up their claim. According to the ACLU, "innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and ... black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports." ( 

I seriously doubt that the police officers who are using Stop & Frisk in an apparently discriminatory manner are doing so intentionally. They are probably exhibiting the covert racism that runs through the fabric of American society and that haunts the subconscious thoughts, bleeding over into the subtle behaviors of-- dare I say-- all of us. 

I am a typical middle class white American. I grew up in a small town where, in my graduating class of over 400 students, we had fewer than 10 African Americans. I heard racial slurs and jokes on an inconsistent but regular basis. Despite formulating a generalized underlying negativity toward black people through indirect means, I also had black friends and I have some family members who are black and who I love dearly. I don't think I'm atypical in having, somewhere deeply embedded in my subconscious, a negative generalization about black people that persists despite probing myself very deeply in attempts to remove these ideas. They operate at an automatic level that I constantly, consciously fight. And at the same time, those generalizations and automatic assumptions never, ever apply to the black people who I actually know and interact with. It is strange and unsettling to me that my mind operates in this way, and that I don't have complete control over it. 

But this is a cultural problem that we all have to confront. The question is how to do that, exactly. Knowing that this bias exists in our culture, that it operates in the back room of everybody's minds as we go about our daily affairs, how can we trust people who make decisions affecting the life and liberty of black people to treat them fairly? We cannot trust our own minds not to deceive us in this regard. Even when we try, we are not fair. Because of this, the idea of colleges using admissions quotas to help ensure that a proportionate number of minorities end up being accepted into incoming freshman classes makes good sense to me, as does making sure that if a policy like Stop & Frisk continues, some attention is paid to the number of white people vs. minorities who are stopped. Using a numbers system is not perfect. It's artificial. It's a way of double checking our behavior to eliminate bias. 

Using statistics and quotas to eliminate racism reminds me of what I do when I'm trying to nail a running pace. The ideal is to have the proper pace internalized so that you can simply tell by feel whether you're running at the desired speed. But learning a pace is not intuitive. You need practice and lots of experience, and outside help. I use a GPS watch to tell me my pace when I'm first learning it, and I repeat it over and over again until I know what it feels like to do it properly. Once I have internalized the feel, I check back in with the GPS occasionally to make sure I'm still on target, because it's easy, even after you think you've learned a pace, to go off the rails. This particularly happens when external conditions change, such as when you are running a race as opposed to just doing a training run.

Just as with learning a running pace, I think learning to extricate the traces of covert racism requires some sort of external reference point, some check on behavior to make sure you're really changing. The ideal, of course, is to internalize a new underlying attitude, to make a real internal change so that you just really ARE NOT racist, at all, anywhere, even deep down inside under a rock you forgot to turn over. That's where the statistics come in. We need to make sure we are not behaving in a racist manner and attributing it to something else. We can't trust ourselves because we suck. Deep, deep down inside. We really suck. We need help.

Racism is a spiritual disease that blights us all.  I hate it in myself and am just as much a victim of it as the people who it oppresses. But my suffering is nothing compared to the people who actually are oppressed by my and every other white person's unintentional behavior. I don't think we have even begun to understand the reach of racism's effects, the way the daily slights that black people receive from white people who-- whether they are trying or not to rid themselves of prejudice-- continue to inflict little wounds with their subconscious attitudes. Several studies have been conducted which point to a correlation between people's perception of being discriminated against on the basis of race and the rate of cancer (e.g., It's wild to think that the tiny behaviors that slip out from some dirty part of millions of subconscious minds are slowly wearing away at the well-being of an entire group of our society. 

My greatest hope is in my children, and in their children, in generation after generation of new people who are hopefully all less and less affected by the mental blight that resides in me and mine.

No comments:

Post a Comment