One night almost 10 years ago, I was walking a friend to her apartment in the student village at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. As we neared her home, we crossed a local police officer. He was looking at us, a black man and a white woman, very intently, and he suddenly called out to my friend, “Miss, do you need assistance?” She was almost too stunned to reply that she was just fine.
Reflecting on the situation in the days and weeks afterward, I wondered if there was any credible reason the officer might have assumed something was wrong. Had there been a call to police about a domestic dispute or strange behaviour in the area? Did the officer think my friend seemed frightened or in distress? I couldn’t understand it. But I wasn’t inclined to chalk it up to coincidence, bad luck or misunderstanding.
Throughout the 20 months in which I lived and studied in Kingston, I simply lost count of the dozens of times I was followed or pulled over in my car by the police without being ticketed, stopped while walking around town, asked for identification and questioned. I had no criminal record. Similar incidents, more than 20 by my count, have occurred in the many Toronto neighbourhoods I’ve called home. I stopped believing in the coincidence of these encounters long ago.
Many other black men who share my experiences move through daily life with an understanding – the colour of our skin is a major factor in our disproportionate rates of non-criminal encounters with the police. Aside from the feelings of anger, mistrust, humiliation and fear these experiences create, black men must also endure the convenient and racist notion that because we are black, we should expect or tolerate racial profiling in the name of public safety.
As noted this morning in a Toronto Star feature on racial profiling and the Toronto police, not only are black men disproportionately charged with more violent crimes than other groups, we are also disproportionately the victims of such crimes. This is why many people think it’s understandable, practical, even necessary for us to be singled out by the police, asked more questions, given less benefit of the doubt. The message is that even if we are not criminals, it’s not worth it to take a chance on us, and that the emotional and psychological aftermath of being treated as natural born suspects is our own problem.
Outside my university campus, I only ever saw one black person in Kingston. The city’s census data from 2001 includes 850 people who identified as black. Yet the Kingston Police data colection project, a study initiated the year I left Kingston (2003), found that over the course of a year, the Kingston police stopped 304 black people. Black male residents were found to be three times more likely to be stopped than people from other racial backgrounds.
My personal Kingston experiences tell me it’s unlikely these numbers indicate a few troublemakers who refused to change. Instead, I wonder how many of those who were stopped had, like me, no criminal record or reason to be suspected. I was needlessly stopped so many times that I became paranoid and went to the police station to complain. The harassment only stopped when I left Kingston, only to resume in neighbourhoods across Toronto from the Beaches to Davenport to the club district.
Our police almost uniformly resist any opportunity to participate in studies on racial profiling and its impacts on the people it targets. The Star and other groups have been fighting in court for years to obtain information about profiling in Toronto. When Kingston’s police chief apologized to local black people for the biased conduct of his officers, his colleagues in the province and across Canada criticized him for exposing his officers to scrutiny. Ironically, even though most jurisdictions won’t even consider such studies, supporters of racial profiling continue to tell the victims that they should not fear cooperation if they have done nothing wrong.
But the societies police are sworn to protect do just as poorly when it comes to discussing the continued reality of racism in our midst. We don’t want to believe that such institutionalized prejudice exists in a country that is, relatively speaking, incredibly peaceful and tolerant. We grant our police permission to single out black people in the course of their work, even though we no longer justify (and have consistent legislation against) the same sort of superficial prejudice in an interview room, at a bank, in a court of law.
Two events in Kingston prompted its police to collect and analyze race-based statistics on public contact. In the first incident in 2001, officers drew and pointed their guns at a group of black teenage boys who were, the police later admitted, doing nothing wrong. The youngest boy was 12 years old.
Two years later, during my time in Kingston, two young boys were again accosted by police, and again were found to have done nothing wrong. One of the boys, a 14 year old, was the same 12 year old the police had drawn their guns on two years earlier. I guess after the first mistake, they couldn’t expect him to take another one for the team.
Racial profiling doesn’t work because it relies on the faulty assumption that we can predict someone’s behaviour or personality based on the colour of their skin. It is institutionalized racism. And for every crime allegedly intercepted by racial profiling, there are scores of black men whose potential is pinned to the ground by their society’s lowered expectations.