Racial Profiling and Citizenship

Beyond maintaining a system of distinctions, narratives of crime create stereotypes and prejudces, and they separate and reinforce inequalities. In addition, inasmuch as the categorical order articulated in the talk of crime is the dominant order of an extremely unequal society, it does not incorporate the experiences of domianted people n(such as the poor, nordestinos, and women); rather, it criminalizes and dicriminates against them…Finally, the talk of crime is also at odds with the values of equality, tolerance, and respect for others’ rights. The talk of crime is productive, but it helps produce segregation (social and spatial), abuses by the institutions of order, contestations of citizens’ rights, and especially, ciolence itself. If the talk of crime generates order, it is not a democratic, tolerant egalitarian order but its exact opposite.

Teresa Caldeira, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, page 39
This morning I had my suspicions confirmed about how the Palo Alto police force would respond to a recent string of robberies nearby campus. Yesterday, a brief article by SFgate,Palo Alto police told to question blacks, reported:

Chief Lynne Johnson spoke to residents about the crime surge Thursday at City Hall.

She says she issued the instructions because several suspects in the robberies are African American and police lack detailed descriptions.

Johnson says she does not want to create an environment of fear for “people of color.” But she says authorities have to do their “due diligence” in catching the suspects.

She says people who are stopped have the right not to talk to police.
Palo Alto’s police chief has instructed officers to question African Americans in the city following a spate of recent street robberies.

ABC local has another version of the story here:

She said because several of the suspects are African-American and the descriptions are vague, she’s instructed her officers to make contact with African-Americans in Palo Alto.

“When our officers are out there and they see an African-American, in a congenial way, we want them to find out who they are,” said Chief Johnson.

I began to think about the ways Palo Altons talk of crime and the implications this has for Black residents and Black students on Stanford’s campus. This is the reality that Black residents from East Palo Alto, before most of them have been pushed out do to economic pressures and gentrification, have had to experience when they crossed segregating Highway 101 to stroll the pristine streets of University Ave. With this increased scrutiny, Black people from nearby areas feel even less inclined to visit Palo Alto for social events or boutique shopping.

While Palo Alto is an largely white space, Stanford’s undergraduate Black community is representative of national figures where they number at about 12 percent. When these future leaders step off campus and go to restaurants or run an errand on University or California avenue, not only are the under increased because it is clear that they are outsiders in this ethnically homogenous area, by default they are considered suspects. No white student at Stanford is subject to this type of scrutiny or form of institutionalized racism. But on they must make sure that the private security knows that they belong to the campus community. They are not just from across the highway, from East Palo Alto, crashing some party, invading some dorm. Off campus and on campus, they are denied a sense of belonging.

Can’t you smell the stench of irony of this crap, especially in light of Nov 4th? If Barack Obama was walking down University Avenue, would the police approach him with questions trying to figure out if he belonged? Would they try to sort him out, unable to distinguish whether he was a the good type of Black as opposed to the criminal sort? Young Black men in suburbia have just as high arrest rates as in high crime areas. That is because no matter where they go, they are always being suspected as criminals. Growing up, I remember my mother going down to the police station screaming at the officers who hauled my brother in after pulling him over for loud music and tinted windows. He sat in jail as a person of interest. For all the times he was pulled over and hand cuffed as a person of interest just because he fit the description, of what? When crimes are committed by whites, not every white male is stopped, questioned, and charged with minor infractions just for just cause. America continues to incubate injustice and the exclusion of its citizens based on race. Few Black people have encounters with the state, except in their encounters with the police. And often these encounters are shaped by Racial profiling. This form of institutionalized racism that equates crime with race. It targets Blacks not for protection as law abiding citizens, but assumes they they need to be monitored and screened because they fit. This, in and of itself, is a violation of citizen rights. It violates the rights of those who are targeted for racial profiling to move freely in public spaces and treated equally by the state. When the very institution that is meant to preserve order and rule of law singles you out, how can you feel like this nation sees you as a true citizen even if they are electing someone who “fits the profile?”


The Stanford Black community responded swiftly. Kenneth Gibbs wrote the city council and mayor/city manager. They responded promptly with condemnations. Stanford African-American groups join chorus denouncing Palo Alto police chief

Immediately, community leaders — from the president of the NAACP, the mayors of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, church leaders and legal advocates — condemned Johnson’s remarks, characterizing the police practice she described as racial profiling and suggesting Johnson should resign.
Monday night, City Manager James Keene told the city council that he had commissioned an auditor to review the department’s policy on racial profiling and that he had arranged to meet with city staff to hear their concerns.

Also Monday night, a coalition of black student groups asked city officials to review how the police department conducted its investigation into the robberies; to provide diversity training for all department employees; and develop an outreach program to improve race and community relations.
“I feel there needs to be an inquiry,” said Rodney Gateau, president of the Black Graduate Students Association, in an earlier interview with the Mercury News. “This needs to be scrutinized. This is more than a misstatement by a police official.”

This is an example of how students can make a difference. It still amazes me that Johnson said what she said so flippantly and matter of fact. I know I’m late on writing a letter. But I will write mine. We have to keep sending a message that we will not take injustice lying down. Good work!!

3 thoughts on “Racial Profiling and Citizenship

  1. This is indeed sad.

    I was around your campus last winter and my friend was stopped for no real reason, asked if he had been drinking and if he knew his way around.

    It was a really random encounter and he kept his cool, but things like this happen too often, especially on majority-white college campuses. Everyone I’ve even visited seems to have some sort of strife going on between minorities and the police, campus or otherwise.

    Its so true that If the assailants were described as white male, but not much else every White man that walked down the street would not be stopped and questioned.

    Sometime it seems like they feel that they can simply stop there. Well, he’s black so that rules out 88% of the community. Pitiful.


  2. I’m the third of 5 generations of EPA residents in my family. My grandparents were among the first Black families to settle there.

    I went to high school at a very exclusive private girls school in Palo Alto with a few other Black girls who had equally deep EPA roots. Crossing that highway to school each day was one of the most important experiences of my life. It was then that I began to really understand White privilege and the complex racial hierarchies that exist in this country.

    I’ve never experienced any sort of discrimination as a shopper in PA. In fact, I established close relationships with many boutique and shop owners during high school some of which last to this day and I’m in my 30’s. The one time a Black girl at our school did experience racism in a PA store the school rallied behind her and students and teachers actually protested in front of the store in addition to other action. Still, being Black and working class in that privileged environment subjected us to all kinds of subtle racism that forever impacted the way I saw race. Crossing that divide to go to school each day– especially in the pre-gentrified EPA of the 90’s– was a huge factor in the way my generation (and probably a few generations) of EPA Black, Latino and Pacific Islander children saw race and our place in this society. We actually talked about it quite a bit. Not at all helped by that damned movie “dangerous minds.”


  3. In Australia, the equivalent descriptions in Sydney tend to be men of Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern appearance (or occasionally Aboriginal appearance). I’ve only ever been approached once by police and asked questions (back in Australia). They were courteous and polite for the most part, but it seemed somewhat random, and I didn’t find it pleasant that I should be singled out for no apparent reason (and I do appreciate that its only been a one time occurrence).

    However, I do also want to look at the other side of the coin. While I agree that never do you get profiling of white persons when a crime has occurred, if the police were given a description of a certain racial appearance, how should they use that information? I’m not condoning the action or comments of the Palo Alto police, but I feel that I am not able to come up with a healthy alternative. I don’t want to cop out of the argument and say ‘there’s nothing else they can do’, I just want to hear some opinions of how this could be approached that would work for all communities.


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