Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Road rage for racists

'Black and Latino drivers find themselves pulled over for a "tilted licence plate" or "failure to signal before changing lanes"'

Today in the United States official statistics show that blacks make up just 13 percent of drug users. Five times as many whites use drugs. Yet blacks make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all those sentenced to prison for drug offences.

There is a very simple reason for the racial disparity in these statistics: since its inception in the 1980s, the government's so called 'war on drugs 'has encouraged police to single out blacks and Latinos as suspected drug traffickers--a policy known as 'racial profiling'. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a scathing report called 'Driving while black--racial profiling on our nation's highways'. The report documents that each year, racial profiling causes hundreds of thousands of blacks and Latinos to be harassed, searched and arrested--and hundreds to be killed in the process--for no other reason than the colour of their skin. Only one out of every five motorists travelling on the state of Maryland's main interstate highway is black, Latino, or another racial minority. Yet four out of every five cars which state police stop and search for drugs are driven by someone from a racial minority. Similarly, 79 percent of motorists arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike have been minorities. In Bellaire, Texas, an affluent white suburb of Houston, black drivers are 43 times more likely than whites to receive traffic citations. In the area around East St Louis, Illinois, Latinos make up less than 1 percent of drivers, but 41 percent of those whose vehicles have been searched by police.

In March, New Jersey's chief of troopers, Cart Williams, defended the state's policy of racial profiling because, he said, 'mostly minorities' trafficked in marijuana and cocaine. The state police of Illinois recently filed a report claiming that drug trafficking in Illinois 'happens to correlate with being Hispanic'. Statistics fly in the face of these racist assumptions. In Illinois, while police search a much higher percentage of cars driven by Latinos, they find drugs in a lower percentage. Moreover, in 1997 alone, California's highway patrol stopped and searched 34,000 cars using drug sniffing dogs, but found less than 2 percent of them were actually carrying drugs--which shows the absurdity not only of racial profiling but of the entire practice of such searches.

The ACLU report argues, 'Racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offences are committed by minorities. The premise is factually untrue, but it has nonetheless become a self fulfilling prophecy. Because police look for drugs primarily among African-Americans and Latinos, they find a disproportionate number of them with contraband. Therefore, more minorities are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed, thus reinforcing the perception that drug trafficking is a minority activity.'

When the 'war on drugs' was launched in the 1980s, various government agencies developed a 'drug courier profile'. The guidelines used by Florida police were typical, advising troopers to be suspicious of motorists in rented cars, who practice 'scrupulous obedience to traffic laws', wear 'lots of gold', do not 'fit the vehicle', and are from 'ethnic groups associated with the drug trade'. Illinois guidelines include religious paraphernalia 'used to divert suspicion', perfume (to cover up drug smells), and maps from 'drug source' states.

In 1987 the federal government's Drug Enforcement Agency trained 27,000 troopers from 48 states to use pretext stops over minor traffic violations as an excuse to search cars for drugs. As a result, black and Latino drivers find themselves pulled over for such infractions as a 'tilted licence plate' or 'failure to signal before changing lanes'. Searches often take up to two hours, while door panels are dismantled and suitcases are emptied on the ground.

But while the ACLU report covers the problem of 'driving while black', this is not the only excuse police use for racial harassment. Even 'talking while black or brown' can be a crime. A Chicago 'anti-loitering' ordinance authorised police to arrest 'suspected gang members and their associates' if they were standing on street corners 'with no apparent purpose' and refused orders to disperse. More than 40,000 people were arrested during the three years the law was enforced. The Supreme Court finally overturned it last month because it was worded too vaguely, but the city plans to revise its wording slightly and reimplement it immediately. Police in Denver compiled a list of suspected gang members which included two thirds of the city's entire population of black youths aged 16 to 24.

The same week that the ACLU issued its report on racial profiling, its deadly consequences were on display in the city of Chicago. Two unarmed black Chicago residents were shot and killed by police during traffic stops. The cops who killed them were also black, showing that it is the racist policies of the police, not the race of the police officers, that make the difference. LaTanya Haggerty, a 26 year old computer analyst, was a passenger in a friend's car on her way home from work. Police stopped the car because it was 'blocking traffic' and ordered it to move. Minutes later, the police stopped the car again. Haggerty was stepping out of the car with her hands in the air. Police claim they mistook her cell phone for a gun and shot her point blank, without warning. Eight hours later 21 year old Robert Russ, a Northwestern University football star, was driving alone when police pulled him over near downtown Chicago. Police broke his rear window and 'accidentally' shot him in the process.

President Clinton stated last month that racial profiling 'is wrong, it is destructive and it must stop'. But even Clinton's words ring hollow, since as governor of Arkansas in the 1980s he fought to implement racial profiling that instructed Arkansas state troopers to stop Latino drivers with Texas licence plates.

But the killings have also led to daily demonstrations at Chicago's City Hall, and a march to the city's police board demanding an end to police brutality. Hundreds of tearful mourners gathered at the funeral services for Haggerty and Russ, held on 12 June. But the mood was one of anger as well as sadness. The Reverend James Simms told the crowd at Haggerty's funeral that it is time for society to pay attention to 'the ethnic cleansing going on here in America'. Haggerty's childhood friend Melanie Nuntlie declared in her eulogy, 'Her life was not insignificant. No more, no more can these children be killed by police brutality.'
Sharon Smith


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page