African Americans who are perceived to look suspicious and be “up to no good”, like George Zimmerman accused Trayvon Martin, come in all forms from Oscar Award winning 51 year old actor, Forest Whitaker, who was detained, frisked and wrongfully accused of stealing from Morningside Heights, a New York City gourmet deli in February, 2013 to renowned Harvard Professor Louis “Skip Gates, Jr. who was arrested at his own home in Cambridge, Ma on July 16, 2009 for suspicious activity of men breaking and entering a residence.
Regardless of whether you wear a hoodie or not, come from the hood or are a renowned black actor or Harvard Professor, most African Americans have had some “crash” moment where they realize they are being negatively judged by the color of their skin for appearing suspicious. Regardless of one’s degrees, awards or cultural status, if a white person suspects a black man of suspicious activity, he could be charged, arrested, convicted or even killed for doing nothing, like Trayvon Martin. That thought was in my mind over a year ago, when my brother called me for help during a medical emergency while driving. He saw a police officer and asked me if he should flag down the officer. I instinctively told him “no” because I feared he would not receive medical attention but might be arrested for suspicious activity. His size of being over 6’1” tall and weighing over 250 lbs plus his race targets him for suspicious activity.
Profiling African Americans for suspicious behavior when no crime has occurred is not new but killing an unarmed child brings it to new levels. And it crosses even political party lines. I attended a Race in America symposium in Washington, DC this year where I heard former Republican National Committee Chair, Michael Steele, tell the story that he tells his son. He lets his son know that when he leaves the confines of his affluent Maryland neighborhood, he is no longer the son of Michael Steele to the world but a very large and tall young black male who may be viewed with suspicion and presumably “up to no good” based on his looks alone.
On an everyday basis doing everyday tasks, blacks are regarded as appearing suspicious. For instance, when trying to get a cab in Washington, DC, according to a May, 2013 investigative report by WUSA 9’s investigative reporter Russ Ptacek, taxi cabs are 25% less likely to pick up black passengers. In some instances, cabs will make U turns to pick up white passengers immediately after refusing to pick up a black passenger, according to the report, conducted in May, 2013.
And the failure of cabs to pick up black passengers in Washington, DC is nothing compared to the stop and frisks in New York where the New York Police Department’s practice of stop and frisk amounts to the police stopping more than 4 million for street interrogations since 2002 with the vast majority being black and Latino. In 2011, almost 700,000 people were stopped, with the majority being African American and Latino. And in nine out of ten stops, those minorities stopped are completely innocent of any crime, according to the NYPD ‘s own reports. These practices are currently being challenged as racial profiling and an invasion of privacy rights of law abiding minorities.
In New York, there is a license for the police to stop and frisk any black person who they perceive as looking suspicious and “up to no good” whatever those phrases mean, in regards to African Americans. And in Florida, there is now a license to stop, shoot and kill any unarmed black person who appears suspicious and “up to no good” as long as you Stand Your Ground. Unfortunately, most blacks have at some time, whether they knew it or not, probably looked suspicious and “up to no good” to a white person. Trayvon Martins are everywhere.
Post Script: This article was revised on July 17, 2013
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor who often appears in the media addressing issues of race and gender in the law. As a former prosecutor, she tried murders, rapes, burglaries, robberies, narcotic and sex crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009. Debbie can be frequently seen on Fox 5 News, WUSA 9 and on RT America with Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture.