The Faces of Racial Profiling Filling our Jails
I am a professor of English and creative writing at a college in Philadelphia, where the majority of my students, are people of color. My personal ethnicity is Italian/Irish with great grandparents straight from the old country. My grandfather, who was from southern Italy, had gorgeous brown skin that darkened within minutes of seeing the sun. He too endured, what is now referred to as, “racial profiling.” At least half of my male students, African American or Latino, have either been incarcerated or know friends that are doing time. All of them, have been frisked, questioned, and threatened by police without just cause. These faces of racial disparity have been branded for life—purely because of the color of their skin. And what year are we in? Ah, yes, 2013.
It was appalling to learn that more men of color fill American jails then there were slaves in the south prior to the Civil war. After watching Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” video—I invited the class to discuss their response to this discovery, what followed was shocking as if someone had escorted me into another world. Perhaps I have been naïve, although I had witnessed racial profiling first hand, with a friend from Columbia. We were pulled over in the sleepy back roads of Sonoma for essentially-- breathing. The officer, a large man with a belly that swallowed his belt (and I think his name was Earl), called for back- up. We were detained until a thorough search of both the car and my friend produced nothing more than a milky way that had melted between the seats. Every one of my students had a similar, only worse, experiences to share. “I was frisked on my way to class while waiting for my deli sandwich. Cop told me to shut the f up when I tried to explain I was a student.” A routine past-time for police.
I had not realized the enormity of the racial discrimination that permeates the criminal justice system. Let me clarify why most of these men (and women) of color are three times more likely to be imprisoned—drugs—most of them for possession not for the intent to sell. Do not mistake this blog post as a shout out for drugs, it is not. I am as opposed to drugs as I am female circumcision! But the fact that whites are no less likely to use, sell, or seek drugs than people of color yet sashay down streets and alleys with no consequences other than addiction, is blatant racism. Is this the America I live in?
Yes, it is! White kids, especially those living in five bedroom houses with a weekly maid and a gardener, can afford to buy their way out of, eh hem, complications. Mom and dad or uncle George can kick down loot to be sure the darling caught with drugs doesn’t do any jail time. What a nightmare it would be if sweet little Johnny or Jeannie were hulled up with those heathens from the streets—those of lesser value, those who have parents working two or three jobs. Is not the law meant to be fair and square regards of race, creed, or social status? Please!
Memories of people I knew in high school and college swarmed my memory like termites. People that I labeled as “druggies” who were “wake and bakers” who went to bed snuggling with their pipes and bongs only to kiss them “good moro” in the morn. Why are they not pacing the concrete cells wonder what their future will hold now that they have a record? It has been ingrained in all of us, whites and people of color that is just the way it is. If a young African American student is in range of a smoking joint—they are at risk of being locked up. How many of you readers have been around someone smoking marijuana and feared for their future?
What is the answer or rather answers? One strategy my class and I came up with is exposure. We need our young children to be educated—to be aware. We need to tell children if your mommy or daddy is doing drugs, this does not mean it is okay or normal. I have a dear friend, a white woman, who has struggled all of her life with addiction—her parents wanted her to join their party and gave her methamphetamines when she was only nine years old. Drug use and addiction is colored blind—but the repercussions are not.
The national mind set needs a slap and snap to reality. History books need to be re-written to be inclusive of the contributions of people of color here in the United States. We need to wage a movement, like the Civil Rights movement, to change the status quo. My students also thought that providing job opportunities for urban teens could help keep them off the streets. Another suggestion was to write to inmates and have them tell their stories. One student said, “Why not build better schools rather than prisons.”
My grandfather was a proud man, stoic to a fault. Had he had different color skin, his life would have probably looked a lot different. The faces filling our prisons need a voice. We can change things but we have to speak up, we have to be aware, we have to get uncomfortable.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.