David Borden, Executive Director,[email protected]
TV news viewers the last two days were treated to glimpses of some of Florida's Ryder rental trucks. To Tallahassee they went, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade ballots aboard, news copters in tow, doing their part to select the legally determinate winner of a statistically indeterminate election.
They might have traveled on some of the big US highways or Interstates -- roads like I-95 or US-1, stretching from Florida to Maine -- on their way passing through the Garden State, New Jersey, the focus of a pitched debate on the state police practice of racial profiling. The statistics there are anything but indeterminate -- New Jersey police did engage in racial profiling, all parties now agree, and engaged in it widely -- on the highways and everywhere else.
The primary culprit in the profiling debacle is the war on drugs. Unlike crimes against persons, which have a complaining victim, drug crimes involve consenting parties who wish very much to keep their transactions private. In order to find drugs, police adopt highly intrusive tactics -- stop and frisks, vehicle searches, no knock warrants, etc. -- and in order to decide where and when to intrude, they've adopted the use of profiles, racial and other.
The profiles, of course, are a self-fulfilling prophecy -- if you primarily search African Americans and Latinos, then those are the people you'll catch with drugs -- because those are the people you've searched. Yet we know from research that drug use and sales occur at approximately the same rate in both our minority and majority communities.
One of the consequences of racial profiling, therefore, is a disproportionately high conviction rate of African Americans on felony drug charges: Though blacks make up 13% of the population and 13% of drug users, they constitute more than 55% of those convicted for drug offenses. And under many states' felony disenfranchisement law, large numbers of black men have permanently lost the right to vote.
Felony disenfranchisement is properly regarded by African American leaders as one of the most important civil rights issues facing Americans today. In Florida, according to salon.com, a full third of all adult African American men have been disenfranchised for felony convictions. Only a small percentage of them would actually have had to vote in order to swing the current election in that state and thereby the nation.
Racial profiling, then, has impacted on our democracy, to the highest corridors of government. And so, we watch the Ryder trucks, transfixed by a legally valid but statistically meaningless election frenzy. Racial profiling, felony disenfranchisement and the drug war are all to blame.