The racialization of criminality has a long history in the United States. After slavery ended, the image of black people as “criminal” and “dangerous” became pervasive as a justification for continued inequality and exploitation of black people and has persisted since.
Racial profiling (assigning criminal suspicion to a person due to his or her race) relies on these very same prejudices and stereotypes. In this environment, even policing policies and self defense laws that seem race-neutral can prove deadly for people seen as inherently or presumptively threatening.
In New York City, community members have long objected to the police department’s “stop and frisk” policy, which annually targeted hundreds of thousands of black and Latino men for questioning and harassment on city streets. Protests and litigation culminated in an August 12, 2013, federal court decision ruling the practice unconstitutional. City officials have vowed to appeal.
In February 2012, Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, was shot and killed in his Florida neighborhood on his way home from buying candy by George Zimmerman, an armed neighbor who saw him as “suspicious” and dangerous and pursued him. Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which broadens a person’s right to use deadly force when in fear of harm. He was later tried and acquitted of all charges, sparking protests that the law legitimated the racialized, baseless fears that led to Trayvon’s death. Many people of color feel burdened by a presumption of guilt created by racial profiling that constrains their mobility, freedom, and security.