The poll found that a majority of black residents said the stop-and-frisk tactic had led to the harassment of innocent people, but most white residents viewed the practice as an acceptable way to improve urban safety.
To be fair, “most” implies something more than a majority, and the actual numbers are not quite that bad:
Opinions about the stop-and-frisk practice are divided by race. Fifty-five percent of whites described the use of the tactic as acceptable; 56 percent of blacks called it excessive. Among Hispanics, 48 percent said it was acceptable, and 44 percent said it was excessive. Republicans, independents and Queens residents generally support the practice; Democrats and Manhattanites generally deem it excessive.
45% responding the other way is not chop suey. Nonetheless, the difference between White and minority respondents is palpable in the poll.
The NYT poll results tend to conjure the idea of “otherness” in public safety administration. It is always easier to sacrifice somebody else’s rights for your own safety than it is to sacrifice your own. Unfortunately, White America has been using the criminal justice system to make itself feel safer from an allegedly criminal Black community for quite a long time. For example: in the early 20th century, stories of so-called negro coke fiends flourished in the South, leading to darkly comical myths about the “Superhuman strength and cunning efficiency” of cocaine-addled Blacks who, allegedly, were induced by cocaine to rape white women specifically, among other things:
The White South feared that cocaine would cause the freed Black to forget “his place” within segregated society. “The fear of the cocainized [B]lack coincided with the peak of lynchings, legal segregation, and voting laws all designed to remove political and social power from him.” Not surprisingly, these fears would be used as a successful argument against the southern stance on states rights to get southern support for federal drug legislation. Myths about the “superhuman strength, cunning and efficiency” of the Negro on cocaine flourished in the South. Such myths included ideas such as cocaine induced Black men to rape White women, cocain improved Black marksmanship, and cocaine made Blacks impervious to .32 caliber bullets (“caus[ing] southern police departments to switch to .38 caliber revolvers”).
— Kathryn R. Sandy, 54 Ala. L. Rev. 665, 679 (2003) (link)
This phenomenon is also present in the TSA’s scanning procedures, or the NYPD’s unabashed racial profiling of Muslim families in New York City. A White American has less to fear from these programs because the archetypical ”Muslim” of the public imagination is not White. So the average White American is less likely to manifest concern about these policies, because the surface-oriented, knee-jerk reaction will be, “well, I’m not a terrorist, so I have nothing to worry about.” Of course, when they think of a terrorist, they’re most likely picturing an olive-skinned man with black facial hair. Unfortunately, so are law enforcement officials; who are certainly not immune from cultural norms. The fact that White people have less to fear from this sort of thinking than minorities do makes it easier for them to assent to programs that sacrifice the latter’s rights when it comes up for discussion. They get additional security without having to sacrifice liberty. Great work if you can get it.
David Cole noted in his 1999 book that if White people were stopped, searched, and arrested at the same rate as poor and minority citizens, the criminal justice system would grind to a halt. Moreover, there would be a public outcry from White elites, whose sons and daughters would suddenly be the victims of these searches and seizures. Reform would be quick to follow. But because we’ve been able to push the burden of law enforcement onto the “other,” we can tolerate a criminal justice system that treats large parts of society with much less respect than it treats wealthier, white citizens. The latter needn’t be concerned, because they so rarely encounter any of the moving parts of the criminal justice system. Constitution-free zones in cities and the unconscionable abuse of minorities in large urban communities are out-of-sight, out-of mind. See no evil, hear no evil.
And that is the reason why these color lines exist in a poll like the one conducted by the New York Times. Sacrificing the rights of the “other” is always easy. It’s when you finally have something to lose that you start paying attention and worrying about everybody’s rights. Unfortunately, many people never do, because frankly, they don’t have to. It’s not their son being patted down and searched three times by armed men on his walk home. And that allows them to ignore the problem. And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ll start paying attention anytime soon.
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