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New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday. The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”
The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion. (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.) In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”
“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.
In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for. In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession. While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally. Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men. Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:
As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”
The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”
Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops. Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination. That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.
Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice. Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men. Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!). In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect. “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”
Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized. Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.
Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system. From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice. Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.
Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia
It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program. Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police. Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work). In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.
Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression. LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.” It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:
In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.
“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”
Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today
The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today. One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause). This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education). The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.
The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression. “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system. What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people. Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women. And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.
Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination). Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.
The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people. Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium. There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples. We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried what others would think.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried others would think I am militant.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried I was militant.
The exact words escape my memory, but it went a little something like this.
I know two words, six letters long each, that shape my experience as a human. They are both old words, with long histories of linguistic, social, and political transformations. One is the perverse derivative of a color that now implies the oppressive superiority of one group over another. One is the perverse transformation of a neutral, inert object that was used to eliminate people now dehumanized and disempowered by the word. One has been reclaimed by some of the very people oppressed by the word and what it represents, but too many are repulsed by the word to successfully reclaim it. Instead, most refer to the word only by its first letter – N. The other word has not been met with systematic efforts to reclaim it. Yet, ironically, the word seems to repulse fewer; as such, referring to it by its first letter – F – world confuse most as another word we regularly censor.
Despite their differences, these two six-letter words share similarities, some odd. Similar in length, beginning and ending with consonants, home to two Gs in the middle, with vowels sandwiched in between. In use, the two are similar in their function of reminding me that I am subhuman, or maybe not human at all. At least, as a partial human, the word nigger reduces me to my skin color and, as such, that my status is inferior to those of white skin. The word faggot reduces me to a sexual act considered immoral, pathological, and revolting. Only six letters long, yet each conjures up a reminder of my place in society – always outside – even when included within.
The simultaneity of these experiences infuses their dehumanizing potential. Indeed, in society, this racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist society in which I live, places me at a subordinate status as a racial minority, as a sexual minority, and as a racial-sexual minority. This marginalization is compounded by the dual betrayals of the predominantly-heterosexual Black community and the predominantly-white gay community. In the former, I am just as likely to be reminded of my subordinate status as a faggot as I am in white-dominated society. I am likely told my efforts to fight homophobia are distracting. In the latter, my racial identity is erased and any attempts to attend to anti-racist projects seen as irrelevant. Unfortunately, both communities have fallen prey to white heterosexist efforts to “divide and conquer,” and too rarely able to forge lasting coalitions. Both, too often, forget that individuals cannot be reduced to a single status: fighting racism, yet putting up with sexism; fighting homophobia while ignoring the whiteness and middle-classness of gay movements. Invisible in Black spaces as a faggot, invisible in gay spaces as a nigger, and invisible as both in society.
But, for as much invisibility is regarded to these statuses is the granting of hypervisibility. Due to the presumption of whiteness and heterosexuality, one always stands out as something other – the Other. I know the ironic reality of invisibility as a Black person, yet the hypervisibility as a black man approaching someone on the street at night. I know the invisibility as a queer person, yet the hypervisibility as a gay man in sex-segregated spaces and situations. It is quite odd that one is simultaneously invisible and powerless, yet hypervisible and threatening.
I use these stereotyped threatening images to my advantage. Or, I at least attempt to do so in desperate attempts to protect myself. When I feel the sense of danger arising in white people as I approach, I trade off my Blackness for my gayness in an effort to seem harmless. Who’s ever heard of a gay thug anyhow? Flipped, in scenarios where I feel unsafe as a queer person, I emphasize my Blackness to appear threatening. To what extent this is simply hypervigilance every minority faces, I am unaware. To what extent these trading-off efforts work, I cannot assess.
The possibility of trading off race for sexual identity and vice versa is made through their intersections with gender. An emphasized Blackness to appear threatening presumes a tough, masculine demeanor, one that implies heterosexuality. An emphasized gayness to appear non-threatening implies a meek, feminine demeanor, one that is at odds with the stereotypical image of Black men. When laid out this way, their opposing nature becomes apparent. One cannot be both the stereotypical Black man and the stereotypical gay man. The former implies the opposite of the latter, and vice versa.
What, then, is the category of Black queer? How does one inhabit these two identity spaces defined as opposites of one another? One’s mere existence resists narrowly defined racial and sexual categories. But, many face what feels like pressure to choose: choose your status, your identity, and your allegiance. Are you Black or are you gay?
I reject this notion of opposition between Blackness and gayness just as I reject the labels nigger and faggot. I am not defined by the histories of oppression, enslavement, and discrimination faced by Black people. I am not defined by the history of oppression, exclusion, and collective closetedness faced by gay people. These histories shape who I am and my consciousness, but I cannot be reduced to either.
This time, I will keep this rant.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with others.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with myself.
This time, I will keep this rant to accept my militance.
Sometimes, I catch myself being envious of those who are comfortably disinterested in race, be it race relations, their own racial identity and community, or the history of racist oppression around the world. Frankly, I disdain that the concept of race exists at all, but I will continue to force recognition of the way race (unequally) structures our social world. I hate that I have to be conscious of the way my own racial identity operates as a force in my life, but, with so few people willing to acknowledge the continued existence and significance of race and racism, I cannot in good conscious block it out of my mind. Ignorance may be bliss, but once you know, you cannot turn it off or ignore it.
On Being Multiracial
Since I was old enough to conceive of the concept of race, as a social force and as an identity, I have known that I am of two racial ancestries: African American (Black) and European American (white and Jewish). As early as kindergarten, I can recall being frustrated by the insistence of official forms and documents that I choose only one racial category when I so clearly fit into more than one — a battle that has been a consistent theme in my life, as well as the lives of other multiracial people. Unfortunately, upon moving from Maryland to Indiana, I felt a sense of racial culture shock, moving from a place where interracial couples are fairly common, to one where there seem to be little awareness that a person could occupy multiple racial categories. This meant, for a brief period, feeling that I was forced into the category of Black. My anger and frustration with some of my new experiences as a Black person in the Midwest fit with what many other Black people experienced. But, with time, I have re-realized that I am not Black. I am not white. I’m neither, yet both – a complicated description of my racial identity which reflects the complexity of my experiences with race and race relations.
My White Privilege?
Along with my Black racial identity and white racial identity comes the associated racial disadvantage and racial privilege — in particular, the disadvantages, stigma, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by Black people and the privileges and sense of being the normal, default racial category experienced by whites. Yep, that’s right. In all of my years of acknowledging being simultaneously Black and white, it has never occurred to me until now that I have white privilege. Gag! My anti-racist self is nauseous just at the thought. But, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, I am privileged by my presumed and/or actual whiteness.
Direct, Interpersonal White Privilege: In two ways, I am privileged as a white person, or at least not disadvantaged as a Black person. The first, of which I have always been aware, is being read either as a light-skinned Black person (and, thus not burdened by the stigma associated with darker skin color) or some other non-white race. In thinking about sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s research on race, namely his theory of moving toward a tri-racial system in the US in which there emerges as third, middle category that is treated as honorary whites (e.g., Asians, light-skinned Latina/os), I am arguably more privileged, or at least less disadvantaged, than many Black Americans. The second of these two ways, wholly new to me, is being read as a white person — a white male, to be more specific. As such, there are an innumerable number of encounters in which I have been presumed to be a white man and, arguably, afforded the privileges that are associated with such interpersonal interactions. (Could it be that the times, at least some of them, that I have concluded that a white stranger was especially nice was a product of my presumed whiteness?)
Secondary/Indirect White Privilege: At two levels, both interpersonally and structurally, I am afforded white privilege through my relationships with white people. The largest, most sustained batch of white privilege has come from my white heterosexual male father. The privileges he is afforded through interactions with others and those that come from the structured pattern of race relations have, in turn, been handed to me through our father-son relationship. That means that, in part, my process of becoming socialized was shaped by white heterosexual male privilege. (This was, of course, in combination with the Black female disadvantages by mother is afforded.) Although weaker and not as sustained , I also am benefited by the white privileges afforded to extended family, professors, colleagues, friends, and past and future romantic partners. An interesting story was released recently about the secondary white male privilege afforded to scholars of color who have white male mentors; although the findings are overstated, the idea of privilege being trickled down to others who are denied those privileges directly is quite interesting and relevant for my family, friend, and work relationships.
What To Do About White Privilege?
Well, sheesh, I feel a bit at a loss about quickly moving to the “what next?” question so soon after being hit with the realization that I have white privilege. My initial reaction has been surprise and guilt — a similar reaction to the eventual awareness that I am privileged as a middle-class male. As I encourage others, I must acknowledge such privilege and attempt to be critical enough to see when I am being privileged simply because of my presumed whiteness, or maleness, or middle-classness, or even the rare instances of being presumed heterosexual. But, on the flip side, I have entertained the idea of capitalizing on these privileges for anti-racist pursuits. For example, when I asked one of my professors to write a recommendation letter for graduate school on my behalf, she noted that she was surprised I was not white (after seeing my personal statement) — she had assumed whiteness and was proud of my frequent comments about race and racism in our class. In some instances, members of the privileged group are afforded more room to speak, are listened to, and their words carry more weight because they are assumed to be from a place of genuine concern rather than self-interest. (And, as I have argued before, white people are likely less often challenged or doubted in general, even on matters outside of race.) But, as I am continuing to learn, reflect, and evolve, I suspect that I will have a better sense of the “what next?” question in the future. Thus, expect more to come.