Three days before President Obama seized upon George Zimmerman’s acquittal as an opportunity to talk about racial profiling, he offered effusive praise for New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, long a target of criticism for law enforcement practices that discriminate based on skin color and ethnicity. The juxtaposition of these comments suggests Obama would rather attack an easy target than confront issues with much clearer implications for equality under the law.
While Zimmerman surely deserves criticism for the rash actions that led to his deadly fight with Trayvon Martin, the evidence that he considered the teenager suspicious because of his complexion is meager. The subject of race was not mentioned during the trial, and a juror interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week said it did not come up during deliberations, either. She was persuaded that Zimmerman “would have reacted the exact same way” if Martin had been white, Hispanic or Asian, because “he profiled anybody who came in and acted strange.”
Yet Obama implicitly portrayed Zimmerman as racist. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said on Friday, recalling his own encounters with fearful motorists, suspicious department store clerks and nervous, handbag-clutching ladies in elevators who viewed him as a potential criminal based on nothing more than his African ancestry. Such experiences, he explained, “inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
Perhaps so, but that does not mean the interpretation is accurate. By contrast, there is no mistaking the racially disproportionate impact of the “stop and frisk” tactics championed by Kelly, whom Obama talked up in a Univision interview on Tuesday as a possible secretary of homeland security, calling him “one of the best there is” and “very well qualified for the job.”
In contrast with Zimmerman, who has never been credibly accused of shooting Martin because of his race, Kelly is named in a federal lawsuit that charges the NYPD with routinely violating the Fourth and 14th Amendments through a program of street stops that target blacks or Hispanics 87 percent of the time.
The number of such stops septupled during Kelly’s first nine years as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s police commissioner, from fewer than 100,000 in 2002 to almost 700,000 in 2011; last year there were 533,000.
Although the stops, most of which involve pat-downs, are supposedly based on “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, nine times out of 10 they do not result in an arrest or even a summons. They almost never discover guns, although that is the official goal of the pat-downs.
More often the searches find small amounts of marijuana, possession of which is ordinarily a citable offense. But in a tricky maneuver Kelly concedes is illegal, cops will often claim marijuana pulled out of pockets or bags during a stop was possessed “in public view,” a misdemeanor that justifies an arrest. Not surprisingly, pot busts have skyrocketed along with street stops, and 87 percent of the arrestees are black or Hispanic, even though surveys indicate whites are at least as likely to smoke marijuana.
As Obama noted on Friday, “There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” In New York City under Ray Kelly, that history is still being made.
While Kelly’s defenders argue that the racially skewed impact of “stop and frisk” is a side effect of sending cops where the crime is, the NYPD’s program of spying on innocent Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism explicitly discriminated based on religion and national origin. As The Associated Press revealed in 2011, the NYPD “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity.”
Last week Obama declared that “Ray Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York.” That’s true enough, but not necessarily in a good way.
Sullum is a senior editor for Reason magazine and a syndicated columnist.