Dog day afternoon topeka.
If there is any good news to be had in the aftermath of the tragic events of the last week and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it is this: There is a growing consensus across the country that racial profiling is unacceptable and unjust, especially in cases where the victim is a young, unarmed black male.
And that consensus is being felt by police departments across the nation.
"I can tell you that the FBI has a much better understanding of racial profiling and it's not a good thing, and we're going to stop it," sd FBI Director James Comey to CBS This Morning this past Monday. "And it's not a good thing for the police department, it's not a good thing for law enforcement, and it's not a good thing for the American public."
I would go further: I think this is a national tragedy.
In the United States today, the most common way to become a millionre is to win the lottery. And I don't mean that in the pejorative sense of the phrase "lotto winners." I'm talking about the reality that millions of people play the lottery because they believe that, statistically speaking, they are at least moderately likely to strike it big and make them and their family rich. And I think we are at least somewhat all aware that that statistical likelihood is greatly exaggerated.
This is not to suggest that the Ferguson and Cleveland situations are not tragic or that racial profiling can be excused, of course. Far from it.
But the idea that racial profiling is a scourge on our society, and that it is a product of the same racist attitudes that brought about slavery and Jim Crow and the suppression of the civil rights movement, is not a new idea. I mean, if there is anything we have learned from the last week, it is that racial profiling, if it ever existed, is still with us today.
But there are those who would have you think that, for as long as our country has existed, it was always a bad thing. And in an earlier column, I offered my take on the matter, arguing that, in fact, this country was founded on a strong rejection of racial profiling and that it has a history that predates the nation and the current era of racial polarization.
If you haven't read my earlier column, and would like to, here are the basic facts.
The history of racial profiling in the United States
The notion that racial profiling is a historical anomaly, and that it is a product of the more recent history of the United States, is almost a parody of the reality that the United States has always been deeply, pnfully, racially divided and has had its problems with race relations.
That fact was first pointed out by Frederick Douglass, who observed, after the passage of the Civil War Amendments, that "the abolition of slavery had not ended the racial question, it had simply transferred it from the slave to the free States. As soon as the slaves were set free, they were regarded as citizens, they stood upon the same plane with the white citizens, and could hold office, enter into contracts, make and discharge agreements, and sue and be sued. But the African was not allowed to be a citizen, or to hold office, and was denied the privileges of contracts and of suit."
And that was just as true in 1865 as it is in 2015. Indeed, one of the most enduring and pnful examples of the reality of racial division in the United States was the Jim Crow laws that were passed after the Civil War to separate black and white and to prohibit them from freely and completely intermingling in public places. In fact, in his 1877 book The Negro, Frederick Douglass notes that in many parts of the South, black and white were kept separated by rl, "in separate cars, or cars of different colors and colors, with a colored person only at the door, and in the cars of a rlroad, where the passengers have to take off their coats and hats, a colored person was kept at the door, or, where the trn was large, there was a colored porter. Wherever this arrangement was made, it was with the manifest design of keeping the Negro and white man separate."
Those segregation laws were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous civil rights cases Brown v. Board of Education and its companion case, Shelley v. Kraemer, and by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but racial profiling, as we know it today, was not unknown to the nation's founding and continues to be practiced even into the twenty-first century, even as it is being fought by many on both sides of the political sle.
For example, this week in The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Baldwin published a column titled "Racial Profiling Is Not New," and in it he observes that:
The first recorded mention of "racial profiling" is in a 1966 book, The War on Crime. The authors, police officers, are "in the course of our investigation we have become familiar with a new phenomenon, which has recently become known as the'stop-and-frisk.'" The technique of stopping someone because of his or her race and questioning him or her about a crime for which the suspect has no known connection is at least as old as our country. What is new is the use of this technique by police officers who are black rather than white.
What is interesting is that in the years that followed, the term "racial profiling" became somewhat of a catch-all for what, at the time, was more generally known as "stop-and-frisk," a police tactic that disproportionately targets and stops young black men. But the issue of racial profiling was rsed repeatedly in court, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that police did have a constitutional right to engage in stop-and-frisk, but it also had to be done by police of the same race, and it had to be conducted "on a street" and not in a "concentration of people." And it was only in the 1990s, when the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, and more specifically in the case of Illinois v. Wardlow