The Common Good

Rachel is Weeping: Ending Racial Profiling in America

Editor’s note: The following written testimony was submitted by Lisa Sharon Harper, on behalf of Sojourners, to be included in today’s U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Hearing on “Ending Racial Profiling in America.”

I was asleep. Body sprawled across the back seat of my brother’s car, I was asleep and grateful for my older brother’s extraordinary act of kindness. My 25-year-old brother, Ernie Harper III, had offered to drive his 21-year-old sister back to college after Christmas break in January of 1990. The drive from Cape May, N.J., to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., would be a two-hour-and-thirty-minute trek one way and another two hours and thirty minutes back, all in the same night. With the long drive ahead, we decided our younger brother, Keith, would come along to keep Ernie awake on the way back.

Somewhere between Cape May County—the southern tip of New Jersey—and a dark stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, I laid my head on the back seat and moved between waking and sleeping to pass the hours. My brothers talked and listened to music in the front seat. After a while, I looked up to see what time it was. It’s been 25 years, so I don’t remember the time, but as I looked at the clock, I also saw the speedometer and never forgot what speed my brother was going. The speedometer read 55 miles per hour, the New Jersey Turnpike speed limit in 1990. I’m not sure why I never forgot that random detail, except that I remember laying my head back down on the seat and thinking: “Ernie’s a good driver.”

Moments after I lay down, flashing lights and a police siren penetrated our haven. I sat up and wondered what was happening. Ernie was going the speed limit. Why would the police stop us? The officer approached the car with two young black men in the front seats. He flashed his flashlight through our front left window and demanded my brother’s license and registration. My brother handed the officer both documents and waited with his hands visible on the steering wheel. The officer demanded my brother step out of the car.

Ernie unbuckled his seat belt and got out of his car. He was told to spread his hands and legs while the officer frisked him. Nineteen-year-old Keith and I were silent, waiting for this intrusion to finish. Then the officer commanded both of us to get out of the car. We did.

The officer frisked us both, then searched the car. Three siblings stood on the side of this dark New Jersey Turnpike road, under a concrete overpass, as a flashlight moved inside our car, scanning our peaceful haven for evidence of wrongdoing. The officer opened the trunk and pulled out a baseball bat. He shoved the bat in Ernie’s face and yelled, “What is this?!” Ernie explained, “It’s a baseball bat.” The officer yelled in his face again, “This is a weapon.” My brother explained, “I just played baseball yesterday.”

The officer swung the bat back and hurled it into the night. Something in me snapped.

I demanded: “What are you doing?”

“What?!” the officer got in my face and yelled.

I stood my ground: “I demand to know why we were stopped. I know my rights.”

“Oh, you know your rights. Do you?” the officer bore down on me.

“Yes,” I countered. “We were going the speed limit. There was no reason for you to stop us. Why did you stop us?”

“Who do you think you are?!” he demanded.

“I know who I am,” I answered. “I am Lisa Sharon Harper. I am a senior at Rutgers University and I demand to know why you stopped us.”

The officer didn’t answer my question. Rather, he focused back on the car. He searched some more. He threw a few more things into the brush and finally came back to Ernie and asked: “Is there anything wrong with your car?”

Ernie stumbled over his words, “Ah … ah … I have a tail light out.”

The officer wrote a ticket for a broken tail light, handed it to Ernie, and told us to get going. We got back into the car. Ernie reached beneath the steering wheel and disconnected a few circuits, and we drove away without any lights at all.

A little while later Ernie dropped me off at my dorm. Then he got back into the car and drove back into the night. I prayed he would make it home again that night. He did.

That was my first encounter with racial profiling by law enforcement. I thought it was a unique experience until 1996, when Judge Robert E. Francis of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that New Jersey state police were de facto targeting blacks, in violation of their rights under the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions. A groundbreaking study by professional statistician John Lamberth tracked stop and arrest patterns along Interstate 95 in New Jersey, also known as the New Jersey Turnpike. The study found that blacks made up 13.5 percent of the Turnpike’s “population” and 15 percent of its speeders, but blacks represented 35 percent of police stops on the Turnpike. Blacks were 4.85 times more likely to be pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike than other drivers.

Lest we believe the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement is a unique situation experienced by isolated states or confined to the decades of the 1990s, a 2007 report by the Department of Justice revealed a deep disparity in the rate at which motorists are searched by local law enforcement across the nation.

Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, explained: “The report found that blacks and Hispanics were roughly three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and blacks were nearly four times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.”

Since the early 1990s the incidents and nature of racial profiling have expanded to match the increasing diversity of our nation’s multiethnic, international, and multi-religious reality. In 1991 a typical racial profiling incident looked like the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, shot to death by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du who assumed Harlins was trying to steal a carton of orange juice. The jury found Du guilty of manslaughter, with a possible 11-year sentence. Yet the presiding judge reduced the sentence to five years of probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

Today international terrorism has become a key driver of immigration, policing and labor policy on every level of government: federal, state and local. Terrorism was a leading pretext for the Secure Communities program partners local law enforcement with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and fast-tracks deportation processes for individuals arrested and detained through the program. As of October 2011, 3,600 individuals had been detained by ICE through the Secure Communities program. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Law School, Latinos compose 93 percent of people arrested through the Secure Communities program, though they only compose 77 percent of the total undocumented population in the United States.

Most recently, the February 26 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by 28-year-old George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., has reminded Americans that the roots of our nation’s history of racial profiling are still present. It is not clear, yet, whether Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was motivated by race. Nor is it clear whether racial profiling contributed to the local Sanford police department’s initial finding that Zimmerman’s actions were not worthy of an arrest. What is clear is that although a black boy is dead and he had nothing but Skittles in his pocket and an iced tea in his hand, the institution of Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law led local police to declare that Trayvon Martin’s slaying was justified.

As a Christian organization, Sojourners is compelled to consider the pattern and institution of racial profiling practices abhorrent and a direct threat to the maintenance and cultivation of the inherent dignity of every human being living and working within the boundaries of the United States. We believe every human being is made in the image of God and therefore equally worthy of protection of human and civil rights under the law. Racial profiling not only threatens the psychological and emotional well-being of targeted communities. As demonstrated above, the practice can lead to death.

In our holy scriptures we find a story of racial profiling that touched the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the book of Matthew, chapter 2, the writer records an incident where the governor of the land, King Herod, issued an edict commanding the elimination of all Jewish boys two years old or under. Mary and Joseph fled and hid in Egypt. But the writer records the following account of the devastation in the land: “A voice was heard in Ra’mah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (Matthew 2:18).

When the tapes of the 911 calls about the Martin-Zimmerman incident were released on CNN, they revealed the last moments of Trayvon Martin’s life. America heard Trayvon’s desperate and horrified cries for help. Like Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955, Martin’s death triggered a national outcry, and wailing and loud lamentations rose and transformed into marches across America.

It is clear that the weeds of racism and racial profiling have not been pulled from our nation’s soil. It is also clear that the repercussions of these practices hold deep spiritual and moral significance in the life of our nation. Thus, in response to the persistent and pervasive use of racial profiling and the emotional, spiritual, and physical hazards the practice presents to targeted populations, Sojourners urges passage of the 2011 End Racial Profiling Act. As well, we urge Congress to fully fund the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, increasing the department’s capacity to levy enforcement and to prosecute racial profiling acts across the nation.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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