Christopher E Smith is the white father of a black, biracial son, and it is through his son's experience of being black in America that he has learned just how pervasive and humiliating and violent officialdom is to black Americans, a fact embodied perfectly through New York City's notorious, racist stop-and-frisk program. Smith describes how his son, interning on Wall Street, has been repeatedly stopped by police, once made to lie face down on the filthy sidewalk in his best suit while police went through his pockets (former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg was a staunch supporter of this program). He describes the experience of his black in-laws, who are stopped by police-cars en route to family gatherings, who have guns aimed at their heads, and who are then released with a shrug and a nonsensical excuse. He describes how driving over the US/Canadian border with his son is totally different from driving on his own, and how the customs guards routinely stop the two of them, and make them wait out of sight of their car while it is searched.
As an aside, I've experienced this myself. I've driven across the US/Canadian border literally dozens of times and the only time I was stopped was when I gave Nalo Hopkinson and David Findlay — who happen to be black — a ride to a Clarion reunion at Michigan State University. At both border crossings, the car was searched from top to bottom, with officers taking out books and shaking the pages to look for contraband. It's never happened since. The only difference between that drive and all the others was that there were some brown-skinned people in evidence.
Smith proposes a thought experiment in which stop-and-frisk searches were mandatorily applied in keeping with overall demographics, so for every three black people that the NYPD pull over and humiliate without warrant or suspicion or probable cause, they would have to do the same to ten white people — and suggests that this would end the program of stop-and-frisk in a heartbeat.
I think he's right.
Proponents of stop-and-frisk often suggest that the hardships suffered by young men of color might be tolerable if officers were trained to be polite rather than aggressive and authoritarian. We need to remember, however, that we are talking about imposing an additional burden on a demographic that already experiences a set of alienating "taxes" not shared by the rest of society.
I can tell myriad stories about the ways my son is treated with suspicion and negative presumptions in nearly every arena of his life. I can describe the terrorized look on his face when, as a 7-year-old trying to learn how to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in front of our suburban house, he was followed at 2-miles-per-hour from a few feet away by a police patrol car—a car that sped away when I came out of the front door to see what was going on. I can tell stories of teachers, coaches, and employers who have forced my son to overcome a presumption that he will cause behavior problems or that he lacks intellectual capability. I can tell you about U.S. Customs officials inexplicably ordering both of us to exit our vehicle and enter a building at the Canadian border crossing so that a team of officers could search our car without our watching—an event that never occurs when I am driving back from Canada by myself.
If I hadn't witnessed all this so closely, I never would have fully recognized the extent of the indignities African-American boys and men face. Moreover, as indicated by research recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the cumulative physical toll this treatment takes on African-American men can accelerate the aging process and cause early death. Thus, no "special tax" on this population can be understood without recognizing that it does not exist as a small, isolated element in people's lives.
What I Learned About Stop-and-Frisk From Watching My Black Son [Christopher E. Smith/The Atlantic]
(Image: stopfrisk_june17_DSC_1073, Michael Fleshman, CC-BY)