March 25, 2013

Racial Profiling: Alive & Well. My Students Tell Their Stories. ~ Karen Devaney

The Faces of Racial Profiling Filling Our Jails

    “Angel you’re late,” I quipped to one of my students as he strolled past me carrying a bulky backpack.

    “I’m sorry professor, it wasn’t my fault, I was detained. Well, cuffed and roughed up by the cops.”

    “What for?” I asked startled. Angel, a bright involved student of Latino decent, was visibly upset.

    “For being that’s what.” Angel yanked his backpack off and slumped in his seat.

    “What do you mean?” I decided to take my chances and press the issue.

    “I ordered a deli sandwich and waited outside to smoke a cigarette. All of a sudden cops swarmed the place; I was cuffed and thrown to the sidewalk. They took my backpack and searched it. I kept telling them look man, I am a student I was just waitin’ for my food. I don’t know nothing about no drugs. Cops told me to shut up. When they found my school ID and my homework they let me go—no apologies—just go get outta here. I left without getting my food. ”

The class erupted and we discussed for an hour similar experiences many of my students have had. 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—purely because skin color.

My students’ stories went on, their voices haunted by both fear and hope for their futures.

Perhaps I had been naïve or ignorant to the pervasiveness of the problem. My personal ethnicity is Italian/Irish, with my 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. I am well aware of some of his experiences of being racially profiled in America, but now here I am, teaching the very people that have suffered the wrath of inherent racial disparities of this country’s criminal justice system.

The Center for American Progress reported that African Americans represent 12 percent of the total populations of drug users, Latinos seven percent—but 59 percent are imprisoned for drug offenses.

If a young African American student is in range of a smoking joint—they are at risk of being locked up by association. Paul, for example, another studious African American in my speech class, is well aware of this reality and shared his own story. He was standing outside a market talking to friends when “a cop came and grabbed an African American guy smoking weed on the corner. It was really scary. I don’t smoke.” Paul went on to express how he doesn’t want anything to mess up his education. For this shy student to openly share his fear over how his skin color could affect his future was monumental.

How many of you readers have been around someone smoking marijuana and feared for your future or were afraid you would be locked up just by association?

According to the NAACP, “Five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites.” Another alarming fact from the NAACP and the Sentencing Project is brown and black people serve virtually the same prison time for drug offenses (58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (61.7 months).

John, an African American student in my speech class who had been incarcerated on a drug offense (possession) said that during his prison term he was housed with harden criminals (all white) in for rape and other violent crimes. He is now unable to vote or hold a public office.

Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State University and the author of The New Jim Crow says, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

I had my students watch an interview with Alexander. During the interview she explains her findings and reveals the reality of the war on drugs campaign. “By waging a War on Drugs in communities of color they are relegated to permanent second class citizens.” Alexander also says that there are more African American men in prison or parole now than there were slaves in 1850. (Watch Michelle Alexander: Drug War Racism – YouTube)

What is the answer?

Certainly shutting up is not going to work. Clearly the word needs to spread. Flood lights need to point to the facts and findings of groups such as The Sentencing Project that show black offenders receiving sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Their research also reports that African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison.

How can we make this information go mainstream?

As a so-called free nation, we need to wage a movement, like the Civil Rights movement, to change the status quo.

My students suggested that providing job opportunities for urban teens could help keep them off the streets while they earn an income. Another suggestion was to write to inmates and have them tell their stories. One student said, “Why not build better schools rather than prisons? We want the same thing white people want.”

The faces filling our prisons need a voice. We (meaning all of us) can change things, but we have to become aware, we have to speak up, we have to get as uncomfortable as those who are the brunt of racial disparities.

I love cultures and can’t wait to travel the world but for now I write full time, teach at a university, dance, do yoga, and try to keep evolving. I write children’s stories, novels, and  poems all can be found at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I love live theater and spoken word, and do both as much as possible! I also love to share with others in anything that keeps us connected.

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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