The roots of racial profiling-- Speaker probes disproportionate school suspensions and the role that racial beliefs can play in them


By Frank Weir

Legal News

Our current and ongoing racial divide is an outgrowth of the system of slavery according to ACLU attorney Mark Fancher who spoke recently at the Washtenaw County Bar Association's Bias Awareness Week dinner.

He emphasized that even those who would never consider themselves racist in any sense of that loaded word, are affected by our unique history.

Fancher is a Princeton-educated attorney for the Michigan ACLU's Racial Justice Project. His presentation was based on the week's theme: "The School to Prison Pipeline."

"Several years ago we started to actively look at this topic by examining suspension data from 50 school districts in the state," Fancher began.

"What we soon found was that there was a disproportional suspension rate among students of African descent. This was the only group that suffered a consistent disproportional suspension."

In fact, Fancher found that although African American students comprised just 18 percent of the student population, they suffer two to three times that in suspensions whereas white students, who comprise 75 percent of the school population, have suspension rates well below that percentage "and usually substantially less," he noted.

Fancher added that researchers found most suspensions to be based on "subjective offenses" such as disrespectful behavior toward authority figures, excessive noise, insubordination and the like.

"When we talk about what we found, some people react by demanding to know if we are saying that school officials are racists. Our answer is no we aren't. But we are saying that this is a recognized phenomenon and we think there are reasons for it."

As a way of explanation, Fancher cited a typical school encounter and how white and African American students might be treated differently by school personnel. A middle aged white assistant principal is standing in a corridor between classes and sees three to five white males talking loudly, playfully hitting each other, "carrying on."

"He looks at those boys and he sees himself when he was 16. Boys will be boys, he thinks," Fancher said. "Now let's take the same scenario but with three to five African American males exhibiting the same behavior.

"The assistant principal immediately processes that scene differently. He's not a bigot but something is different with this group. He doesn't see himself as he was at 16. The jargon and slang is alien to him. When he sees the African American group, he sees them as intimidating. They seem louder than the other group and so he approaches them."

Fancher continues that the assistant principal confronts the African American group and tells them they are being too loud. The students look at each other and immediately sense an injustice and protest that nothing was said to the white group.

"With that reaction, the school official sees that group as being disrespectful so he orders them to report to the office. So the injustice escalates. The group refuses to go saying again that they are being treated differently. Now they are being insubordinate and the boys will be forced to go to the school office and will be subject to suspension."

Fancher noted that just such a scenario occurs in high schools and middle schools "on a daily basis."

He added that he once received a letter from a mother who told him of a fight between her daughter and another girl in a middle school. The girls were handcuffed and walked down the hall with the cuffs on. The school official reported that he felt that other students were in danger and "he told this woman's daughter that he would use a taser on her if she moved."

"I can honestly say that I'm pretty sure I could control a middle school girl without putting her in handcuffs or threatening the use of a taser," Fancher said.

He went on to say that "those in authority immediately presume criminality with students of African American descent. We see it all the time."

And that presumption of criminality has been part of the African American experience "from the time we first arrived on these shores.

"And how did that presumption originally start? Just look at what happened on the plantations. When some people discuss slavery on American plantations, the image that comes to many minds is that of happy darkies singing songs while the master sips mint juleps."

And Fancher explains its no accident that we think that way. "Its the result of deliberate planning. If you are oppressing a people, you must strip them of every aspect of their humanity. And resistance to that oppression, to the extent that the enslaved are resisting, must be removed."

The result was a far different image of life in America under slavery, Fancher said. "What emerges is a population enslaved and at war with their oppressors. At every opportunity, slaves were trying to run away, to poison the food of the slave owner, break equipment, set crops on fire and to kill the master."

This so terrified slave owners "they could not sleep at night since they didn't know if the house would be set on fire so owners needed to establish terror in the slave population."

Fancher noted a well-documented reign of terror against slaves in which floggings and tortures were routine. "In South Carolina, they would drive spikes through a barrel, put a slave inside and then roll the barrel down a hill. Or they would bury slaves alive. There are tortures committed that we can't even imagine. I read an account of the slave master's wife burying a hatchet into the head of their slave cook."

The violence was still insufficient Fancher said so "it became necessary to turn to the law. In all the slave states there were slave codes which dictated where slaves could be present among other regulations. Slaves had to have passes to move about, they couldn't congregate in groups, they couldn't be taught to read."

"If the codes were violated, slaves could be flogged or executed."

Fancher continued that the slave owners' fear of the oppressed slave, and, later of freed slaves competing for white jobs, evolved into the modern era as racial profiling.

"When freed slaves began migrating north and competing with white workers for jobs, there was a backlash and a push to send freed African Americans 'back to Africa.'

"One of the ways this was supported was to promote the idea of black criminality. Freed slaves were made to look like a threat to the social order. Homeless African Americans were charged with vagrancy, for getting into a fight, prison populations exploded due to the arrests of African Americans coming in from the south as freed slaves."

And this campaign left an indelible impression about the nature of the African American Fancher said, "...That they were criminal by nature and should be automatically suspected of committing some offense."

Fancher said that, in the post civil war era, many freed slaves were tricked into permanent indebtedness through share cropper and tenant farmer arrangements with plantation owners

"Once again we had to criminalize the African American in order to sustain the labor force. The sheriff would arrest African Americans on spurious charges and the masters would pay a fee to get them out of jail and then use them as plantation labor. The reputation of the African American as a criminal continued to grow.

"These are the roots when we talk about bias awareness and how and why we feel about race. This is the source of much of the white supremacy sentiment in the country."

Fancher is sure that "unless we aggressively look at why we feel they way we feel, we will never solve the problem. This country is good at denial. We don't like to think about unpleasant things. People don't want to talk about race. And so these problems continue."

Fancher said that, being a part of the ACLU, he hears the worst stories. "The problems of race are very real. Many feel they were eliminated in the 50s and 60s. But they weren't and the greater problem is when racial biases continue to intrude on the thinking of those Americans who try to deliberately not be racist. They are trying their best to do the right thing.

"But if people of good will not aggressively challenge what they think and assume, then we will never solve our racial issues," he concluded.

Published: Mon, Nov 7, 2011