It’s easy to sit in a suburban home or upscale apartment in America and pretend racial profiling doesn’t exist. But for millions of American minorities, racial profiling is an all too familiar part of life.
Take the New York City Police Department’s Stop and Frisk policy, for example. Stop and Frisk gives NYPD officers the authority to stop any person they believe could be carrying illegal weapons or drugs and search them. How do officers decide who they should stop and frisk? What does a person carrying illegal guns or drugs look like, anyways?
For NYPD officers, a person’s race offers an easy answer to these questions. Despite making up only 52% of New York City’s population, 90% of people stopped in the program are of Black or Latino descent. The Stop and Frisk program has made painfully obvious what authorities in America believe a criminal looks like.
Want to know what racial profiling looks like on a personal level? Meet Alex Peay.
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Peay is the award-winning director of Rising Sons, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating personal and professional development in young males. Peay has won numerous awards for his work in the Philadelphia community, and is a member of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission of African American men. But on November 3, 2013, Peay was none of these things. Not to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania residents and police, at least. To them, he was a black man looking for trouble.
That day, Peay was set to take an Amtrak train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. After buying his ticket, he went into a convenience store to buy some snacks for the ride. Inside the store, he encountered a crazed looking man. Despite not speaking a word to him, the man seemed threatened by Peay.
“I was inside the store for a good 10 minutes,” Peay told Opposing Views. “He kept moving away from me. Saying he would call the cops. The cashier told the man he needed to leave the store because he was making customers uncomfortable… The way his body was moving. His eyes were blood shot. You could tell he was on something.”
When asked to leave the store, the man told the cashier he couldn’t leave because he believed Peay would beat him up once the two were outside. Peay tried to diffuse the situation by calmly buying his food and leaving the store. Once outside, Peay sat on a nearby bench and did some work on his laptop.
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After an uneventful 45 minutes, Peay looked up and saw the man he’d encountered in the store earlier. This time, he was accompanied by four police officers.
“Four cops approached me,” Peay said. “They put handcuffs on me and started questioning me. I was in cuffs for 15 minutes while being questioned. I was answering calmly and complying with everything. I don’t know why they put me in handcuffs just to talk to me.”
Notice that Peay was put in handcuffs before police asked him questions.
Onlookers stared as Peay was cuffed and questioned by police. Peay told officers that he did not know the man and explained to them that he had been accused by him inside the store for no apparent reason. After a few more minutes of explaining, the officers uncuffed Peay and let him go.
Sadly, Peay was not surprised by how he was treated by both his accuser and police officers that day. After all, this wasn’t his first time being profiled. As a teenager nearly ten years ago, he spent a day in jail for a crime he had nothing to do with.
When Peay was 17 years old, he and several friends were walking home from Bible study when they passed a man who’d been assaulted with a glass bottle. Police arrived as Peay and his friends walked by the man. Within minutes, they were detained by police and accused of assaulting the victim. He and his friends spent the night in jail.
Soon after, the mother of one of his friends contacted the victim and asked who had attacked him.
“He said he knew we didn’t do it,” Peay recalls “but police pressured him into saying it was us.”
“I feel like no matter what we do as black men, no matter how hard we work to become something great, we’re immediately considered ‘the guy who did it’ by police,” Peay said. “I’m on the side of the police – I want to help the community.”
In a perfect world, police pressuring a victim to falsely accuse teenagers of a crime should shock you. A black community leader being assumed guilty as he is handcuffed and interrogated by police at a train station should shock you. But we don’t live in a perfect world. For millions of minorities in America, injustices like this are a part of everyday life. Remember this the next time you hear someone claim America is a post-racial nation.