When the media focused attention on the Cambridge Massachusetts police department this summer it briefly put a spotlight on the practice known as “racial profiling.” Little of that discussion served to inform the broader public about its prevalence or its function in policing. I suppose this is not unexpected—reporting of controversial events of this sort rarely leads to serious consideration of social policy. But I think there is something else worthy of consideration: a deepening divide between public discourse about race and the significance of race in the criminal justice system.
My sense of this divide was further reinforced by the discussion about race in my research seminar this week. My students had read Derrick Bell’s provocative book, Silent Covenants. Bell argues that the racial majority supports policies that benefit the racial minority only when there is an interest-convergence. For example, he makes the case that college administrators support affirmative action because it forestalls more fundamental challenges to how the educational system furthers racial privilege. My students readily discussed the merits of Bell’s argument, but they become strikingly agitated when drawn into a discussion about the explanatory power of race in determining the prospects of black students to either drop out of high school or end up in prison. I believe this happened because both white and Black students in the class found that describing the processes of racial marking and segregation that occurs in American high schools as entirely inconsistent with the discourses of their “post-race conscious” world. Students on both sides of the debate had trouble finding the vocabulary to describe racial salience in contemporary American society.
The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is cosmic: the widespread belief that we have moved toward greater equality, racial tolerance, and greater diversity in our communities stands in contradistinction to the growth in economic inequality, trends towards more segregation in schools and communities, and racially determined system of mass incarceration. This disconnect is most striking in the realm of criminal justice and in circumstances where involvement with the criminal justice system is the most significant factor in the reproduction of disadvantage. In order to talk about race in this context it requires a return to old vocabularies.
To say there is a racial disparity in sentencing doesn’t capture the actual consequence of it—that the rate of imprisonment of blacks and hispanics has created a form of racial apartheid. If we describe the reluctance of employers to hire individuals with criminal records as employment discrimination, it overstates the scope of legal protection available to ex-prisoners. The terminology also focuses our attention of the discretionary decision-making of employers rather than the systematic exclusion of poor black and hispanic men from the labor market. While studies have shown that ex-offender status is a concomitant factor with race on discriminatory hiring, to fully understand the significance of race in workplace participation requires us to consider how racial sorting begins in early education, continues as students are tracked to higher education, and is already in place when imprisonment delays young men and women’s development of skills and talents. As the CLEAR collective (Community, Leadership, and Education After Reentry) has recently argued the growing number and the expanding apparatus of programs is creating a new racially marked category of “prisoners-in-reentry.” They see this as a form of “population racism” that manages and supervises the life capacities of the formerly incarcerated (Vivian Nixon, et, al, “Life Capacity Beyond Reentry,” Race/Ethnicity, Autumn, 2008).
In the media frenzy about the Cambridge incident, racial profiling was often portrayed as perpetrated by rogue police officers who indulged their racist attitudes or as heightened surveillance of black men in public places. These random forms of racism undoubtedly persist, but as a policing practice racial profiling is often legitimated as an effective crime control technique. For example, this kind of systematic profiling is employed when federal or state authorities conduct “random” stops on highways that are known drug trafficking routes. The assumption that supports profiling is that if disproportionate of blacks and hispanics (as well as cars with out of state plates, young men, etc.) are flagged over, it will both increase the number of “hits” (drug busts) and create a deterrent effect among populations who are more likely to engage in illegal behavior. Is this effective policing? Even if it were the case that racial minorities have higher offending rates and if the higher probability of being detained resulted in decreased participation in illegal activities, this methodology would contribute to higher arrest rate of minority drivers and a greater sense of immunity to arrest among white drivers. Moreover, this tactic fuels the distrust of law enforcement officials and subjects minority groups to needless harassment. More fundamentally, as a policing practice, racial profiling elevates dubious justifications for efficacy and increased detection of illegal behavior over the social costs of racially conscious criminal justice. This is the issue that deserves serious public discussion as the consequences of this system reinforce the forms of racial marking that divide us.