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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that racial profiling in policing is indeed a prevalent issue in today’s society. She cites racial profiling in policing as a factor contributing to the continued mass incarceration of African Americans and reflecting the existence of a racial caste system. The fact that police are given so much discretion, as Alexander points out in several cases relating to the War on Drugs that have greatly strengthened police discretion, gives law enforcement the power to decide who to target and how they approach. While it might sound reasonable for police to hold a certain degree of discretion, she also points out that such power often leads to unjust racial discrimination caused by people’s implicit racial biases and the stereotypes perpetuated by the public. The issue of police discretion coupled with racial bias together created the situation today in which the mass incarceration of African Americans continues to take place.
In the name to fight drugs, police have since gained a lot of discretion regarding who they want to stop and search since the courts believe that a greater power given to the police will allow them to better stop drug offenders. But, as Alexander points out, the police, in reality, are simply stopping and detaining random people. For instance, even minor traffic violations like speeding can be used as an excuse by the police to search an individual’s vehicle for drugs. While it might seem fair for the police to carry out their duties to stop those who violated the law, the fact that they have such discretion also means that they can search virtually anyone they choose if they follow them long enough to witness any sort of technical traffic violation. Furthermore, what comes after being unjustly stopped and search is the unfair trial that many may be expected to receive. This is especially the case for people of lower-income who can’t afford good lawyers and for people of color who often aren’t given the chance to demand better treatment. Despite knowing that the vast majority of these voluntary stops and searches turn out to be false, just the great number of victims searched by the police means that these searches will still turn out to a significant amount of arrests and convictions, which in turn incentivize police to continue such unjust cycle of behaviors.
Besides the police having a great deal of discretion, the greater issue is that African Americans have so often become the target of these unfair stop and searches due to the racial biases that are so prevalent within the police. Alexander points out that especially for the cases related to drug crime, police are more likely to use their racial bias and stereotype to identify potential drug criminals. Since basically most Americans have used drugs sometime in their lives and it’s just not possible for the police to arrest the majority of the people who use drugs, they have to choose who to prosecute for crimes of drug use. With the discretion police possess, they can decide who are the ones to be put into prison in the first place. Their target ended up being the African American communities who are mostly poor and have little chance to fight back against the police. Not only are African Americans the easy target for the police, but it is also more publicly acceptable to arrest them due to the public’s false association between African Americans and drug crimes, an unfortunate perception guided by the media and government. To further prove her point, Alexander mentions several solid statistics that highlight how the police tend to target African Americans during random stops and searches, despite the substantial evidence that whites are actually more likely to be carrying drugs than blacks.
As seen from the essay, racial profiling in policing is definitely a hard issue to tackle because these biased decisions and actions are often guided by racial stereotypes that are deeply rooted in today’s criminal justice system. The great amount of discretion the police hold allows them to freely arrest people and set the charges. With the black community being the target of racial profiling and subjected to unjust stops and searches, it explains why there are millions of people who have been unjustly incarcerated during the War on Drugs and why they are overwhelmingly comprised of the African Americans communities. Despite the grand scale of this issue, changes should still be made to end it. Since racial discrimination and bias are present in various aspects of the criminal justice system and in society at large, would eliminating that bias truly reduce the racial disparities of those who are incarcerated? Or should the solution be aimed more toward other factors like amending drug policies or equalizing class discrepancies?
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