It’s a funny thing about words: sometimes, they convey meaning but not necessarily understanding.
Take the term “racial profiling.” Author Joseph Collum of Plantation, Fla., says the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining it in 1989 when he was an investigative TV reporter in New Jersey. We all get its meaning: law-enforcement personnel targeting citizens by their skin color.
But to truly “understand” what racial profiling is, it helps to hear a story like that of Chris Stubbs. She was a 27-year-old black woman, driving home to North Carolina from New York where she had gone to pick up $10,000 from a friend’s brother; the brother, who owned a car dealership, had agreed to stake Stubbs’ dream of opening a restaurant.
Stubbs was pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper who claimed her front wheel was wobbling. She told him she had a spare. He asked to search her vehicle. The trooper did his search and found the brown paper bag full of cash.
“You know you’re going to jail for this,” he told her.
“For what?” she asked.
“For having all this money,” he said.
Stubbs’ car was driven to a state police barracks. The door panels were removed, the carpet was lifted, every crevice was searched. Stubbs was frisked, fingerprinted, photographed, interrogated, locked up.
And then, released. They’d found no drugs, charged her with no crime. They had not so much as written her a ticket. But troopers still kept the cash. If Stubbs wanted it back, they told her, she’d have to hire a lawyer and prove it wasn’t drug money.
If that story infuriates you, well, there’s more where that came from. Indeed, one reads Collum’s new book, “The Black Dragon: Racial Profiling Exposed” in a state of perpetual anger, amazement and fascination. The book (yours truly provided a blurb that appears on the back cover) reads like a particularly addictive novel and you have to keep reminding yourself that what you’re reading actually happened, that it is not the invention of some writer’s imagination, that New Jersey troopers were really this out of control, this unlawful, this willing to shred the U.S. Constitution.
“It was right there for everybody to see on the side of the highway,” says Collum. “That’s how we got on to it. I was the reporter for the investigative unit and one of our assignment people used to come in everyday and say, ‘Hey, I saw it again. Troopers had a car over on the side, all of the luggage out on the road, people sittin’ on the guardrail. And guess what? They were black.’”
Finally, Collum pulled arrest records for a single small town — Leonia. What he found stunned him. “Because, I think, 90 percent of the arrests the previous year by the state police on the Turnpike through Leonia were black or Hispanic. I said, ‘Could this be true all up and down the Turnpike?”
Jersey troopers were not interested in catching speeders or drunken drivers. They were out to make drug busts. In the War on Drugs, that was the key to career advancement and Trooper of the Year awards. And the way you made those busts, the veteran cops taught the young ones, was to “think dark,” i.e, find reasons to stop drivers with brown skin.
Eventually, that advice would embarrass New Jersey before the nation. Collum’s TV news report led to a series of humiliating revelations, hearings and a Justice Department consent decree. “The Black Dragon” is a riveting account of that ordeal. It is also yet another piece of evidence damning the War on Drugs as a war on people of color and their civil liberties.
We say we are a nation of liberty and justice for all. But, again, it’s a funny thing about words — even those words. Yes, we all get the meaning. But Collum’s book suggests some of us are still a little fuzzy on the understanding.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org