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National Commentary

Moment to Capitalize

Time appears ripe to capitalize on these meaningful moments. In my view, that would mean focusing on some specific instances of systemic racism and calling for specific changes to those policies and practices.

Now is the time to capitalize on the moment. The protest demonstrations precipitated by the killing of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor earlier in the year—and many others—have been substantial and intense enough to force some change—if we take advantage of it.

For example, in the 1960s, protests against the Vietnam War were instrumental in forcing President Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection. Of course, this was an unfortunate result as the country elected Richard Nixon, who set in motion some of the craziness we see in American politics today.

However, I want to focus on the relative success of those righteous protests. The Black Lives Matter protests have moved the rhetoric toward a correct assessment of the cause of these events—systemic racism.

Time appears ripe to capitalize on these meaningful moments. In my view, that would mean focusing on some specific instances of systemic racism and calling for specific changes to those policies and practices. If we do not, we will miss a great opportunity.

Of course, we should continue to press for changes in policing. But let’s emphasize policies and practices that have broad and substantial impact, e.g., police union contracts. These contracts have a primary role in protecting police misconduct, including the killing of unarmed black citizens.

While we are at it, though, let’s address other problematic areas. To illustrate, let’s expand from policing to other parts of criminal justice processing.

Once arrested (disproportionately), people of color are also likely to be charged more harshly than whites. Once charged, they are more likely to be convicted. And once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences – all after accounting for relevant legal differences such as crime severity and criminal history.

Let us address some of the policies and practices that cause racial disparity, for example, policies and practices concerning illegal drugs. In 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drugs was black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race and ethnicity, and drug users generally purchase drugs from people who look like them.

Racial disparities in prosecution for illegal drugs is one of the more significant problems facing black Americans. All of us are affected by the fallout from what that does to families and communities.

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Racial profiling is another major cause of disparate results in the criminal justice system. Significantly, it is often the first step in some of the processes that lead to police officers killing innocent African Americans.

While racial profiling can affect many aspects of the lives of minorities, DWB “driving while black” is a well-known and consequential form. Among the most frequently occurring incidences of racial profiling are traffic stops, which often result in vehicle searches for contraband (illegal drugs or weapons). Dunn and Reed conducted racial profiling studies, including the examination of traffic stops, searches, and arrests across 12 states.

In 11 of these 12 states, police officers stopped blacks at higher rates than would be expected if there had been racial equity in the rates of being stopped. In nine of these 12 states, officers searched black driven vehicles at higher rates than cars driven by whites. Of the nine states providing yield data, blacks had lower yields (finding contraband) in six states; and Hispanics had lower yields in seven states. Thus, even though whites tend to have contraband more often than blacks or Hispanics, these two minority groups are racially profiled, that is, they are stopped and searched more often than the crime data would suggest.

A comprehensive approach for addressing and eliminating racial profiling includes at least three things: (1) a ban on the practice of racial profiling, (2) ample data collection, and (3) a mechanism for creating and implementing strategies to address racial profiling when it is detected. We should push for all of that.

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