Racial profiling has always existed in the United States, albeit with different manifestations. Laws restricting the travel of slaves beyond their owner’s plantation were commonplace throughout the South in the 1800s. Following abolition, vagrancy laws targeted unemployed black men. Jim Crow laws continued the trend of institutionalized racism until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made the “separate but equal” doctrine on which these laws were based unconstitutional.
For many, the Civil Rights Act represented the cessation of codified discrimination and a new beginning of equality. In the decades since, however, new, more covert methods of discrimination against minority groups have been introduced that hinder racial equality.
The police’s use of excessive force and brutality has long been a problem for minorities, but it long remained an afterthought in the national conversation. In 1992, the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with viciously beating Rodney King and the ensuing riots thrust police brutality into the national spotlight.
Recently, there has been a trend of undue investigation into the activities of persons of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. A particularly jarring example of this is the case of Hasan M. Elahi, an American citizen from Bangladesh who, after attempting to board a flight, was interrogated about his supposed links to terrorist cells and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Despite giving ample evidence of his innocence, Elahi continued to endure questioning at the hands of the FBI for months on end.
On a larger scale, the war on drugs is responsible for the targeting and incarceration of minorities on a downright unjust level. According to The Huffington Post, black men are incarcerated on drug charges at a rate 13 times higher than that of white men. Part of the war on drugs is a policy known as “stop and frisk,” which allows police officers to stop random civilians and perform a cursory body search should the officer suspect the civilian of criminal activity. Of the 685,724 people stopped by the NYPD in 2011, almost 87 percent were black or Latino. Of those, 88 percent were innocent of any crimes.
It appears no one is safe from the pitfalls of racial profiling, either. In February, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting in a New York deli and searched by an employee. While the incident could be chalked up to a simple misunderstanding, senior editor of The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates put it best, writing, “I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark.”
Critics who argue in favor of racial profiling say it is efficient and those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. One must only point to the Trayvon Martin case to prove otherwise. Besides the horrific potential consequences it bears, racial profiling props up stereotypes by giving into them. As long as there are policies in place that target minorities for criminal activity, the social script will always be that minorities are criminals.
Racial profiling has done remarkable damage to race relations in America and is, among others, a factor prohibiting a truly post-racial society. As long as there is a system in place that targets certain individuals above others based on race alone, how can equality be attainable? Given the abuses perpetrated by the criminal justice system, it is clear we are far from achieving equality, let alone a post-racial society.