Racial profiling is a longstanding and deeply troubling national problem many innocent people have become subjected to. It’s when law enforcement and security target people of color in often humiliating, frightening, and inhumane circumstances without any evidence of crime. Not only is it severely damaging to its victims, alienating to communities, and inherently ineffective, it’s also patently illegal.
But despite all the claims that the US now lives in a “post-racial era,” the real-life stories from people of color tell a very different story. So when William Kimeria, a software engineer from San Francisco, asked “Black people, answer this with the most ridiculous reason you have been stopped by police,” on his Twitter, it immediately resonated with many people online.
William’s thread soon went viral, amassing 39.2k likes from people sharing all kinds of heartbreaking stories of being unrightfully disturbed by the police. “Mine is 'not waiting the requisite amount of time between indicating a lane change and changing lanes,'” said the thread’s author, and it became obvious this is just the tip of a giant racist iceberg that rots society from the inside out.
The software engineer also said that even knowing all that, he was genuinely shocked by some of the stories people posted. “There is also a lot of regional variation (I noticed that some of the most extreme incidents were in the midwest),” William added.
“I think this is a consequence of unaddressed structural racism and structures that are built upon that, as well as stereotypes about black people that justify whatever treatment is meted out to them. Police are a reflection of the society that they live in, along with all its biases and inequalities.”
William also thinks that there is also “an additional incentive in cities where a significant portion of the city funds come from traffic fines (this is what we saw in Ferguson, MO). In those areas, police are incentivized to target the people with the least amount of power and who are least likely to complain,” he explained.
When asked how could law enforcement earn back trust from society, William said he “doesn’t think people are going to trust law enforcement without some serious accountability as well as re-thinking what exactly the role of police is.”
“On the accountability front, the one stop I mentioned is one of many that happened to me between the early '90s and the early 2000s in the Boston Metro area. I have only ever received one ticket (doing 42 MPH in a 35 MPH zone, and the cop lied),” the thread’s author recounted.
“In 2004, the Boston Globe and Northeastern University released a comprehensive study of racial profiling in traffic stops, with a metro area by area breakdown that pretty much validated what most black people knew.”
“For example, MA State Troopers at the time were found to have the least disparity in traffic stops between different demographic/age groups. Also, the standards to be an MA State Trooper are much higher (education, psych evaluations, etc.) That squares with my experience. At the time, State Troopers were considered tough but fair. There were huge disparities based on race between other metro area police forces.”
William explained that this “report landed like a bomb and triggered changes where police had to start recording demographic data of whom they stopped, and suddenly, like that, I stopped getting 'randomly' stopped.” He added that he didn’t have a single DWB stop between then, 2004 or so, and when he left the state in 2013.
However, William sees a looming complex problem still taking place nationwide, as “even in MA, some police departments pushed back against the report. Police departments have fought accountability at every level.”
“Bad cops are protected, and when bad cops are fired or let go, it is very easy for them to find a job at another police department (this was the case with Timothy Loehmann, who murdered 12 year old Tamir Rice). Derek Chauvin (who murdered George Floyd) had a string of past incidents in his disciplinary record, one of which was eerily similar to the way he killed George Floyd.”
William concluded that “there are no comprehensive hiring standards for police officers at a state or federal level, it is city by city,” which makes it all the more problematic.
But there is also the larger problem of heavy militarization of police. William sees that it has to do with “a mindset where police see themselves apart from society (in a lot of cases, police do not live in the same precincts that they are tasked with patrolling). The mindset issue can be seen in the fact that one of the most popular trainers of police (Dave Grossman) teaches a course touting 'Killology,' which is intended to lower police inhibitions to kill suspects.”
“When police are taught to see the people they police as an 'enemy' population (Killology is more appropriate as something taught to the military), bad things are going to happen, especially when that population does not look like them,” he explained and added that “American police kill a staggering amount of black people, but they also kill a staggering amount of white people too (larger in absolute numbers than the total amount of black people they kill, but once population size is accounted for, the rate at which they kill black people is higher).”
“Both those rates are much higher than all other developed nations in the world, and higher than a lot of developing countries,” William said.
The American Psychological Association notes that research psychologists have studied the psychological effects of racial profiling and found that “victim effects” of racial profiling include post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of stress-related disorders, perceptions of race-related threats, and failure to use available community resources.
According to criminologist Scott Wortley: “To argue that racial profiling is harmless, that it only hurts those who break the law, is to totally ignore the psychological and social damage that can result from always being considered one of the 'usual suspects.' Realizing the sheer level of humiliation it puts on the innocent citizens is a crucial step in erasing the practice of racial profiling, which has been continually ignored."
Meanwhile, Rachel Godsil, a director of research for the Perception Institute, says that racial profiling has a direct impact not only on its victims, but on the entire dynamics of the community. "Even if it happens to someone that doesn't look like you, it's a harm to the community," she said. These are especially true in countless calls about a "suspicious person" that in reality don’t involve any suspicious activity. Most often, it’s just a person of color walking down the street.