Michael Brown was shot while walking down the street with a friend a few days before he was supposed to start college, and the 18-year-old may well have been the victim of racial profiling.
In 2010, the civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander wrote a groundbreaking book that likens the experience of being racially profiled to the so-called Jim Crow era of segregation and humiliation of African-Americans in the U.S. south. Jim Crow laws — named for an African-American character in minstrel shows — allowed racial segregation in many U.S. states until the 1960s.
Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Alexander writes that America’s criminal justice system subjugates black men by targeting them through the so-called War on Drugs and depriving them of many of their rights as citizens by putting them in jail at disproportionately high rates.
Notably, the book argues that stop and frisk, a practice made legal by a 1968 Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio that proponents say is essential for police work but which has been frequently tied to racial profiling, is really a throwback to an era of systemic racism. From Alexander’s book:
Ultimately, these stop-and-frisk operations amount to much more than humiliating, demeaning rituals for young men of colour, who must raise their arms and spread their legs, always careful not to make a sudden move or gesture that could provide an excuse for brutal — even lethal — force.
Like the days when black men were expected to step off the sidewalk and cast their eyes downward when a white woman passed, young black men know the drill when they see the police crossing the street toward them; it is a ritual of dominance and submission played out hundreds of thousands of times each year.
For many young black men in America, their first interactions with the criminal justice system come when police randomly stop them on the street.
As a law student at the University of Chicago who did a police ride-along and was appalled by what he saw told Alexander: “Each time we drove into a public housing project and stopped the car, every young man in the area would almost reflexively place his hands up against the car and spread his legs to be searched. And the officers would search them. The officers would then get back in the car and stop in another project, and this would happen again.”
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