Law and disorder

 Diverse city
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  December 13, 2006

Recently, I awoke to the morning news on my clock radio that the previous day had three notable robberies, one by a white man, another by a pair of black men, and a third where the race of the perpetrator wasn’t mentioned.

Such a spate of newsworthy criminal activities all at once is rare enough around here, but what got me thinking was the one by the black men. And what I thought about was how much more likely people were afterward to be on high alert when they saw any black men walking down the street.

Now, you can say you’re not that kind of person, but even if that’s true, you’re in the minority. I say this because I’ve had too many people, from little old ladies to young guys, suddenly hold their purses tighter or check their wallet when I go by, and I’m a black woman who dresses anything but thug-ette. And that’s not just in Maine; I’ve had that experience living in Chicago too.

That fact is, no matter how many stories you hear about white guys committing crimes, you aren’t likely to think when you see a white guy coming by, “maybe he did that robbery,” while the thought is much more likely to strike you for the brown-skinned guys strolling by, a sad commentary on how often African-Americans and Hispanics get portrayed as criminals in media and entertainment and in the public unconscious.

And the police carry the same baggage as everyone else, which worries me even more, because they are the ones who are on the lookout for criminals. So I particularly worry about black folks getting on their radar who haven’t committed a crime. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Geez, another black person who doesn’t trust the cops. What’s wrong with you?”

What’s wrong is that too often, minorities with darker skin tones are constantly reminded that the color of their skin affects the attitudes of law enforcement.

I know because when I was much younger, I was once arrested for being in the vicinity of criminal activity that I had no part in. Fortunately, I only spent a night in jail before things were cleared up, but there are plenty of others who aren’t so lucky, both the innocent and the guilty.
And before you get all over me for feeling bad about the guilty folks, there is plenty of research backing up how blacks and Hispanics get harsher sentences. A young white guy who gets caught his first time carrying a bunch of drugs is much more likely to get some kind of probation or light sentence, while a black guy in the same situation is treated as a threat to society. One of the big reasons the prisons are filled with so many minorities isn’t because minorities are more evil; it’s because they get targeted more.

I know about this stuff because my son, who goes to high school outside the state and is only around for weekends, holidays, and summers, has been repeatedly approached by police who are concerned he might cause trouble, even though he is well-dressed and well-mannered.

I know because my white husband has been pulled over far more often by police in the roughly 10 years he’s been with me while I’ve been in the car with him than he ever was in more than a dozen years of driving before he met me.

So, while it would be nice to think that police and judges and others are fair and even-handed, they are people with hang-ups like everyone else, and so, while I don’t want black people to get away with shit, I’m far more worried about the ones who will catch shit just because some other black guys robbed someone.

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Shay Stewart-Bouley:

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