It was around 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in mid-July. I was returning home from an inspiring Travyon Martin Foundation fundraiser in Greenwich Village. I live in south Harlem, not far from Columbia University, so I took the C train to the Cathedral Parkway stop. Rarely visited by non-Harlemites, Central Park North is quite beautiful. Because it is so pretty, I made the seemingly reasonable decision to walk home through the park, on a path 15 feet from the sidewalk on 110th Street. Thirty seconds later, I heard sirens blare and saw flashing lights ahead as a police van sped up to me. Two cops were in the vehicle, one white and one Asian. The white officer exited the vehicle, shined a flashlight in my eyes, and asked me if I knew why they’d stopped me.
I honestly had no clue. Turns out it’s against the law to be in the park after 11:00 p.m.
He then inquired in an accusatory tone if I was in possession of any drugs, searched me, and warned me that if I had any prior arrests or warrants, I should let him know before they ran my ID. While I was being interrogated and frisked, a young couple, both of whom were white, entered the park less than 100 feet in front of us.
The officers did nothing to stop them.
A week prior to being stopped and frisked, I attended a warehouse party in Williamsburg, where (like most underground Brooklyn loft events) most of the attendants were young white hipsters. As an up-and-coming European DJ alternated between EDM and Hip-Hop, silhouettes and shadows danced with abandon, only made visible by the glow-sticks hanging from their wrists and necks. PBR cans, cheap plastic cups, and cigarette butts littered the floor. Nobody cared. My friends and I were enjoying the frenetic yet somehow laid back energy of the room.
Not too late into the evening, an attractive white woman in her early 20s walked up to me and drunkenly introduced herself. I smiled, nodded my head, and took a sip of my drink. Feeling her stare against my cheek, I turned back to her and made polite. “What’s up? How are you tonight?”
Looking blankly at my nose, she appeared to have difficulty processing my question. A few seconds later, she screamed in my ear. “Hey, uh, do you know where I can find some coke or Molly?”
I’ve been stopped and frisked and asked for drugs on too many occasions to count. Why? What about me caused the cops to ignore the white couple and search me for weed? What about me, as opposed to the hundreds of others in the room, prompted the white girl at the party to ask me if I had powder or pills?
You’ve probably guessed the answer already. I’m a black male.
Both of these events were examples of racism, plain and simple. Maybe not the form of racism that requires me to sit in the back of a bus, but racism nonetheless. Ta-Nehisi Coates has defined this new, subtler form of racism as “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
President Obama offered similar thoughts in the wake of the African-American community's reaction to the Zimmerman trial verdict. He said:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
There are probably very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator.
There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.
That happens often.
Regardless of how we dress, the accents we have, or our level of education, this subtle racism is something most black men in America have to deal with every day.
True, thus far in my life, subtle racism has had little impact on my own ability to find happiness. While some of this has to do with the fact that I wasn’t breaking the law when I’ve been profiled, black men don’t have to commit crimes to be harmed by racial profiling. As we all now know, simply walking home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea can get us killed.
Let’s not mince words. Mr. Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, when he followed him, confronted him, and shot him in cold blood. Mr. Zimmerman stated that he was on the lookout for young black males and that Trayvon looked “suspicious.” Had he not made the subtly racist assumption that an unarmed black teenager walking home was a threat, Trayvon would be alive today.
Most men of color in America won’t be killed due to subtle racism, but damaging assumptions about black males harm our lives in numerous other ways. Whether it’s in education, where black students are suspended at 3.5 times the rate of white students, or when we are looking to buy homes, where we are shown fewer options and receive loans with higher interest rates, we are not provided the same opportunities as white Americans.
And then, of course, there’s our nation’s not-so-subtly-racist war on drugs. Over 60% of people presently serving time are minority. If you were born a black male in America, you have nearly seven times the chance of being incarcerated than if you were born white.
What makes these incarceration statistics especially troubling is that the justification for them, that black males use and sell drugs more often than whites, is entirely fictitious. Even though blacks are no more likely than whites to report engaging in illicit drug use in the past month, black men comprise 37% of all drug arrests, are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, and are sentenced more harshly for the same crimes.
Whether it’s done consciously or not, subtle racism has supplanted legal racism as the tool by which the majority maintains its hegemony. If our nation’s drug laws and how we enforce them are any indication, the majority of Americans remain comfortable living in a society with laws that are procedurally fair, yet substantively racist. While we no longer have government-sanctioned discrimination like Plessy v. Ferguson’s “Separate But Equal” doctrine, we now live under a New Jim Crow.
The Equal Protection Clause states that no person shall be denied “equal protection of the laws.” In theory, this means that every law enacted by the government must affect all citizens equally. It took until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for American society to begin living up to these principals. Unfortunately, as we’re seeing more vividly every day, these aspirations have yet to be met.
Our government needs to acknowledge the fact that subtle racism exists in our nation’s laws and how such laws are applied. There are a number of ways this could happen.
The Supreme Court could overturn its decision in Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Corp., where it held that, so long as no obviously racist motivation exists in a law’s legislative history, it doesn’t matter if said law affects citizens of color in a disparate manner.
The Court could also read the Equal Protection Clause in a literal manner, ensuring that all laws are applied fairly across all races. Put another way, the Court could order states to adjust how they enforce laws — specifically drug laws — so that prisoner demographics more closely reflected that of America generally. Additionally, Congress could enact new human rights legislation that acknowledges the existence of subtle racism, providing those who’ve been subject to subtly racist acts the opportunity for redress.
In the end, though, none of this can happen without the support of regular Americans, specifically white Americans, who support the ideal of equal opportunity for all citizens.
White Americans continue to wield considerable control over the law-making process, both due to their numerical advantage and their ability to contribute financially to political campaigns. If they wanted to, they could easily elect candidates who were committed to ending subtle racism’s impact on minority communities. Until they do, however, none of these changes are likely to occur.
I couldn’t sleep the night I was stopped and frisked. I have little doubt that the cops focused on me and ignored the white couple because they believed I was more likely to be in possession of drugs. Tossing and turning all night, all I could think about was the George Zimmerman verdict, how easily it could have been me who was killed because someone feared my blackness, and how subtle racism seemed to impact nearly every part of life for black men like me.
The following morning I woke up thinking about the Williamsburg party. I recalled telling the party girl she was barking up the wrong tree, watching her stumble away, and surveying the room. There was no doubt in my mind that she could’ve found some coke or Molly. There were a few other black guys around; perhaps one of them was dealing. That said, my guess is she’d have been better off asking one of the hula-hooping white guys with dreads.