It was 150 years ago that Blacks in the District of Columbia were freed by President Abraham Lincoln, on April 16, 1862, eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, blacks are still not free from the bondage of racial profiling and targeting that has existed from slavery to today. Before slavery ended, freed black persons needed to carry papers to prove their freedom or risk being placed into slavery. While blacks no longer need papers to prove their freedom, they are subject to racial profiling and targeting based solely on their race.
Racial profiling is a form of discrimination by which persons, usually law enforcement, use a person’s race or cultural background as the primary reason to suspect that the individual has broken the law. The term “driving while black” arose from the practice, as many police officers frequently pull over African Americans for no reason other than their race and the stereotypes linked to it.
In the Trayvon Martin case, George Zimmerman has been charged with 2nd degree murder. The criminal information affidavit alleges that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal suspect, on his way home, because he did not believe Trayvon belonged in the gated community. Zimmerman allegedly followed him suspecting criminal activity due to racial stereotypes and Martin’s skin color.
The worse form of targeting of blacks throughout US history has been lynching. From 1920 until 1938, the NAACP flew a sign from the window of its New York Fifth Avenue offices, with the words, “a man was lynched today”, to chronicle the lynching of blacks in America. Many were never brought to justice and tried for lynching.
During the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma riots, an entire section of town of the wealthiest African Americans in the country burned to the ground due to racial targeting. A whole section of town was destroyed due to targeting of blacks by their white neighbors. It started as alleged retaliation for whites believing a black man had attacked a white woman in an elevator. When it ended, many lives were lost. The recent killings on April 6, 2012 of three African Americans killed in Tulsa for alleged retaliation of a white man’s relative having been killed by a black man two years earlier, is the most recent Tulsa racial case of blacks targeted by whites, reminding some of the 1921 Tulsa riots.
14 year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten to death and drowned by at least two white men for allegedly looking, talking inappropriately or whistling at a white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955. Two men were tried but not convicted. Trayvon Martin has often been called this generation’s Emmett Till.
James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was walking on his way home in 1998 in Jasper, Texas when he was picked up by three white men in a pick up truck. They tied him to a chain to the back of the truck and dragged him three miles to his death as a result of a hate crime. Two of his three killers received the death penalty. And on April 16, 2012, a federal jury convicted three white men of a federal hate crime named after James Byrd, Jr., known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In August, 2011, the three white men attacked a black man while waiting for a bus, calling him racial slurs while beating him. A Justice Department spokesman said today that hate crimes are far too common in this country.
When many African Americans see Trayvon Martin, they think of countless innocent blacks who have lost their lives at the hands of whites for simply being born black. The killing of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman, the son of a white father and Hispanic mother, reminds many blacks of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, Emmett Till, James Byrd, Jr., the Tulsa, Oklahoma burnings, the 2012 Good Friday Tulsa killings and many other atrocities committed against blacks. African Americans have been fighting for justice and an end to racial profiling and targeting since slavery. And today the fight continues with Trayvon Martin.
Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including CNN, the Michael Eric Dyson Show, XM Sirius radio, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, RT TV, CBC- Canadian News TV, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others. She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics. She also writes for the Huffington Post.