Back in November, I had the honor and the privilege of speaking as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association on a roundtable at Harvard Law. Fellow participants included head prosecutors from around the country, and forward thinkers in the criminal justice world, led by the Vera Institute. We discussed issues of racial disparity in sentencing, ways to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment for the same types of crimes/criminal history, and other ways to make our system better. See my interview here on diversity and unconscious bias in the criminal justice system.
As the events in Ferguson continue to unfold, I am constantly reminded of the divide in the policing experiences of many Americans. The Pew Report came out with an interesting study regarding perceptions of the problems in Ferguson, and sadly, it went firmly along racial lines. White Americans thought justice will prevail; African Americans did not.
This gets to the heart of the issue. If you (or those around you) have negative experiences with police while growing up, you will never believe the system is fair.
Looking back, I can think of one such encounter. Growing up in a beautiful waterfront community in suburban New York, my father loved to take me to the park. He would play games with me, walk with me along the water, and listen to my little girl chatter. One day, a police vehicle drove by. The car returned, and began to slowly circle, watching us.
I, of course, was oblivious. It can be a joy to be young and naive.
My father, however, got the message.
The message wasn’t “oh how cute, look at this man and his little girl”
It was “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE“.
Rather than risk an unpleasant encounter, he cut our day short and took me home.
Maybe I didn’t mention it before — I grew up in a predominantly White community.
And another additional fact: my father never wore jeans or sneakers. To this day, he wears slacks, a polo or button down shirt, and a proper British hat, weather permitting. So this was not an issue of fashion, or fitting the description of a call regarding a criminal act.
This is an issue with no easy answers. I just encourage everyone not to assume, and LISTEN to what the deeper issues are.
Here is one man’s experience with profiling that really struck me. Even though he did everything society would expect, he was profiled as a student at Harvard. One quote from his article that struck me was that being racially profiled was a rite of passage as an African American into manhood, similar to a Jewish bar mitzvah. Read Madison Shockley’s article here.