With the year 2000 almost upon us, many communities and institutions are interring time capsules so that the next generations will have physical evidence from which to glean an understanding of events at the turn of this millennium. Presumably, some of those memento sepulchers will contain newspapers and magazines of the day. From these, future generations will ascertain that 1999 was the beginning of the end of the civil rights movement.
Its cause of death will be attributed to a lack of real issues.
The movement once stood as a gallant struggle against genuine injustice. Jim Crow laws, mandating separation of the races in everything from water fountains to schools to hotels were an affront by any standard of decency. History will never forget how the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson had to stay in a different hotel than Pee Wee Reese when the team was on the road. Or that it was a defining moment the day Rosa Parks decided to sit at the front of the bus.
Now, the hot topic which has drawn the label of injustice is racial profiling – the notion that since more blacks than whites are stopped by police it can only be because of an inherent bias on the part of law enforcement. To blazes with the cold hard numbers that show a grossly disproportionate percentage of violent crimes committed by young black and Hispanic males.
Men account for 85 percent of all violent crime arrests. Does this mean that the police are sexists as well?
If they didn't involve such violence, the charges of racial profiling would be almost comical. Two weeks ago in Chicago, two young African-Americans were shot and killed by police officers in separate incidents. A black city alderman immediately declared that the shootings were racially motivated, even though both police officers were also black.
Connecticut just passed a law requiring police to record the race of all people they stop. President Clinton has issued an order requiring federal law enforcement agencies to do the same.
Proponents claim that this data will show more minorities than white people are detained. Most anyone in the justice system (or anywhere else) can tell you that already. The numbers which really need to come into public view is the percentage of arrested people who are ultimately charged with a crime.
If four out of ten white people stopped are convicted and only two out of ten black people get sent to the big house, then police probably should be stopping more white people. But numbers –when you can get them– show that the conviction rates for detainees of both races are about the same. This means the police are doing a pretty good job determining who is justifiably suspicious.
If the goal is to get proportionate representation of white people in jail, let's just pass a law against gaudy plaid shirts, overweight men wearing Speedos at the beach and plus-sized women who attire themselves in spandex. Prison building will be a growth business until the next millennium.
Civil rights in education used to mean the fight against the "separate but equal" nonsense, whereby a town could have a shiny new school for its white students and a run-down dilapidated piece of junk for black students. It used to demand that African-Americans be given equal access to state universities.
Now it's about an affirmative action designed to insure minority admission to universities in spite of lower grades and test scores. To be sure, many minorities come from inferior high schools and are not totally at fault for being inadequately prepped, but let's also take note of Hartford's Bulkeley high school and its Harvard-bound valedictorian.
Once enrolled at the university level, civil rights now means allowing minorities to segregate themselves in dormitories and dining halls. Go figure.
Down in Stamford last week, the NAACP showed up en masse to protest a disparity in school suspension rates between white and minority students. While the black leaders did admit that the reason for the suspensions differed between races – drugs and alcohol for whites, profanity and classroom misbehavior for minorities – they nonetheless declared that the numbers must be the result of insidious racism at work.
Maybe I find this whole idea of trying to stop racial profiling to be a misspent effort because, unhappily so, I do it myself. Whenever a headline or a television news teaser tells me about some poor toddler killed by his mother's boyfriend, I fully expect the kid will have a name like Lykesha or Javier. If a convenience store clerk gets shot in a robbery, I presume police will be looking for a suspect named LeShaun or Jose. It doesn't always turn out that way, but often enough I am surprised when it is otherwise.
All ethnic groups have plenty of members who conform to the stereotypes and plenty who do not. I've been to Irish wakes where nary a drop of alcohol was poured, bar mitzvahs where the food was in short supply and Italian weddings where no one cried. But they are the exceptions to the expectations. And though most people of color are law-abiding, it is the numerousness of their malevolent brethren, and not the police, who cast this dark shadow upon them.
It is the action, not the reaction, which needs to be addressed. If the movement continues to focus on effect rather than cause, the civil rights movement will not only be dead when those time capsules are opened, the term itself will be unrecognizable.
June 22, 1999