A Stop-and-Frisk Primer for Liberty-Loving Liberals

This week Joe Scarborough conceded that he was torn over New York’ Stop-and-Frisk policy. He explained it makes white liberals uneasy because while they realize it causes some discomfort for people of color, it makes white New Yorkers feel safe. In fact the best and oft-stated argument for the indiscriminate stopping and frisking of scores of innocent blacks and Latinos is that they are the ones committing the crimes. Many irrationally cling to this argument even though in New York only one out of ten stops result in a summons or arrest and while a slightly higher percentage of whites who are actually stopped are concealing weapons.

So given these messy metrics, and the conflicted feelings of many of my white liberal friends, I hereby invite my fairer-hued fellow New Yorkers to put some skin in the game. Or at least imagine what would happen if New York’s Finest indiscriminately stopped and frisked white youth in Greenwich Village where I teach at New York University, or on the Upper West and East sides of Manhattan where I live and my children attended school. Guess what? A higher number of white kids would receive summonses for minor infractions or even be arrested or jailed for low- (or high-) level drug violations. And some would go to jail. Think about little Joey and Susie being carted off to jail.

Yes, if you tenaciously target any community, you will yield more summonses and arrests. Would you still feel safer if more of the casual white drug users who attended school with your kids, or even worked in your office, went to jail? But instead of considering the obvious, many hide behind the myth of white innocence and black and Latino criminality, and pretend that the drug trade that fuels much of the violence on inner city streets is exclusively operated by and for communities of color. From the unfettered sanctity of -Stop-and-Frisk-less Upper Middle Class New York, whites act as if their hands are clean.

But I know better. I attended predominantly white public schools in New York City where drug use among my privileged white classmates was far more prevalent than it was among my working- and middle-class black peers. In the corridors at my high-achieving high school a freckle-faced teen peddled a confounding array of drugs – black beauties, red devils, Quaaludes, acid — that many of my inner-city peers had never heard of. College life was no different. Drugs traversed the color line then, as it does now. A 2011 National Institute of Health survey found illicit drug use among people aged 12 or older varied only slightly along racial lines, with the rate 10 percent among African Americans; 8.7 percent among whites, and 8.4 percent among Hispanics. Only among Asians was the rate of 3.8 significantly lower. A study by Duke University professors based on the survey and that controlled for socioeconomics found that African Americans were actually less likely than whites to have severe drug problems. The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, said 9.0 percent of whites had drug problems compared to, 7.7 percent for Hispanics, 5 percent for African Americans and 3.5 percent for Asians and Pacific Islanders.

But because African Americans and Latinos are criminalized and whites held harmless, white liberals shrug their shoulders at the blatant injustice embedded in a policy rooted in discriminatory racial profiling. People of color should resign themselves to an assumption of criminality.

Until now Mayor Bloomberg had largely avoided the racial minefields routinely activated during the Koch and Giuliani years. However, on this issue he is flagrantly fueling racial tensions by suggesting a saner policy would lead to bedlam. Evoking the familiar Bogeyman, he said: “I worry for my kids, and I worry for your kids. I worry for you and I worry for me. Crime can come back any time the criminals think they can get away with things. We just cannot let that happen.”

He acts as if one is arguing against the judicious targeting of suspects. The question is if people should be deemed suspicious due to their actions, or solely their race.

Does Mayor Bloomberg honestly believe that the city is safer targeting people like me, a college professor, mother and journalist, who has nonetheless been suspected of wrong-doing for simply driving a car while black?

It’s happened more than once. The worst incident occurred several yeas ago, while I was visiting my mother in Rego Park. Exiting my car on a dark street, I was ambushed by a team of white plainclothes officers. “Did you cop? Did you cop?” they shouted, as one illegally searched my car.

At first I thought I was being car-jacked but then my terror faded to outrage when I realized I had been racially profiled. When asked who I was and what I was doing there, I responded I was visiting my mother and was a professor at NYU, to which an officer quipped, “And I’m Mickey Mouse.”

I then did what most of my white liberal friends would do. I demanded identification, which made one of the officers irate. Literally foaming at the mouth, he screamed that he would lock me up for my impertinence. (My word, not his). So I never learned their identity, but considering the dismal outcomes for scores of my fellow travelers, I was lucky to walk away without further incident. Scenes like this are routinely repeated in urban areas across America and at times lead to the senseless beating or shooting of young blacks who are suspects by virtue of their skin color.

So all of you self-described liberals who believe that racial profiling is reasonable and just, even when people are doing nothing more than walking or driving, please come off your pedestals and put some white skin in the game. And it need not be your own. It can be your kids’.