By Andrea Ritchie, Street Wise and Safe
There can be no question that the voices of women of color - from Ida B. Wells, to Michelle Alexander, to the countless mothers who have spoken out on behalf of their sons, brothers and partners – have consistently been at the forefront of conversations about racial profiling.
Yet women of color’s experiences of racial profiling - as targets, subjects, and survivors – have remained largely invisible. Implicit in conversations and debates about racial profiling is the notion that we are primarily talking about men of color, and specifically heterosexual nontransgender men of color. While women of color’s stories of racial profiling may come to the fore – like Juana’s or Lena’s or that of Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space – they are not the frame around which our discourse of racial profiling is built, nor do gendered and sexuality based experiences of racialized policing inform our analysis of the issue on a broad scale.
Yet until we are able to see the ways in which profiling based on gender and sexuality act in service of profiling and policing based on race and poverty, we will not have a complete picture of the problem, nor can we arrive at a comprehensive solution.
The promise of the House version of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011 – which adds gender to the list of prohibited grounds for profiling along with race, religion, ethnicity and national origin - is that the experiences of women of color will finally come fully out of the shadows and into the center of our analysis of the issue and of solutions we advance.
While there is much we don’t yet know about women of color’s experiences of profiling and policing, what we do know is that where discriminatory policing practices like New York City’s stop and frisk program are concerned, rates of racial disparity in stops of women are equivalent to those among men – over 80% of stops and arrests of women are of Black or Latina women. Giselle, who has been stopped and frisked four times, is just one of the women of color who has been targeted by this practice. Jamilla is just one young woman of color who is challenging stops and frisks of Black women and girls walking to and from school in a Brooklyn neighborhood.
What we do know is that racial profiling of women of color in the context of the “war on drugs” continues to drive the reality that Black and Latina women are the fastest growing population of people in prison. The findings of the well-known 2000 study by the General Accounting Office documenting the practice of profiling Black women at the nation’s airports were just the tip of the iceberg – pervasive profiling of women of color as drug users, couriers, and purveyors extends into highways, streets, and communities across the country. Such profiling also extends beyond African American and Latina women to Native women, who have consistently reported widespread profiling in the context of the “war on drugs.”
The consequences of profiling and discriminatory enforcement in the “war on drugs” extend beyond arrest and incarceration to collateral consequences in terms of employment – as they did for one 26 year old single mother in New York City – as well as access to housing, entitlements and financial aid, and child custody. As is often the case with profiling incidents, these practices can also have deadly consequences, as they did for Frankie Perkins, a Black mother of three who was on her way home one evening when she was stopped by police and choked to death by officers who believed – erroneously, it was later found – that she had swallowed drugs.
Racial profiling of women of color also extends into gender-specific contexts, and takes gender specific forms. For instance, profiling Muslim, Arab and South Asian women who wear hijab is common not only at airports, but also in schools and on the streets, and has been a central feature of the “war on terror” since its declaration.
Sexual harassment and assault and extortion of sexual acts in exchange for freedom from arrest in the context of traffic and street stops of women of color is reported with alarming regularity across the country. An often unspoken and grossly under reported aspect of police profiling and police brutality, the issue recently commanded the attention of the International Chiefs of Police, which convened a National Working Group on Sexual Offenses by Police Officers and issued a report and recommendations in June of 2011.
Women of color, including transgender women of color, and immigrant women, and particularly Asian and Latina immigrant women, are routinely profiled – based on age old stereotypes - as being engaged in prostitution. As with the “war on drugs,” racial and gender profiling and racial disparities in enforcement of prostitution laws make prostitution-related offenses, along with theft, fraud, and other poverty-related crimes, among the top five pathways to prison for women of color.
Law enforcement agents also routinely participate in the policing of motherhood –through the widespread use of threats to remove women’s children as a an “investigative” tool, participation in arrests of pregnant women and new mothers of color discriminatorily charged with drug offenses, and enforcement of racial disparities in the child welfare system.
These experiences often converge into an almost seamless yet largely invisible arc through the lives of women of color, even as they lead organizing against racial profiling against their communities, as they did for one young Black woman I have the privilege of working with at Streetwise and Safe. Her first recollection of being profiled by police involved an incident where she and her little cousins – all girls under the age of 16, some wearing pajamas – were stopped and searched by police looking for marijuana in the stairway of their New York City public housing project. Also around that time, she and a group of friends were asked for ID by an officer who wanted to know if they were headed to the “stroll.” Since then, she reports routine sexual harassment by police officers as she walks her children to school, being told that a ticket would go away if she just gave an officer her number, being forced to put her 3 month old baby on a filthy sidewalk while an officer searched her stroller, and seeing young women of color being inappropriately ogled and touched during police stops in her community. When she shares these stories, many more women of color approach her and thank her for speaking out about experiences they themselves have had, but have never felt able to come forward to share in larger movements against racial profiling and for police accountability.
Racial profiling also creates opportunities for enforcement of racialized norms of gender and sexuality against all members of communities of color, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of color – whether it’s a demand for ID which escalates into harassment and abuse because the gender marker on the ID doesn’t match an officer’s perception, racialized expectation, or the gender an individual is expressing, pervasive presumptions of involvement in illicit sexual activity which characterize police interactions with women of color and LGBT people of color, the use of homophobic or transphobic epithets to humiliate men of color, women of color and transgender people of color, or the framing of anyone who doesn’t conform to racialized gender norms as inherently “disorderly” and predisposed to violence or criminal activity, policing of gender and sexuality is intricately and inextricably intertwined with racial profiling.
It is long past time – and indeed no longer tenable – to continue to frame our analysis and action around racial profiling in a manner that does not integrate a gender and sexuality lens.
Indeed, we can go even further than the House version of ERPA, and pursue legislation at the state and local level along the lines of the Community Safety Act currently under consideration in New York City, which would prohibit profiling based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, along with profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin, as well as age, housing status, disability (including HIV status), occupation and immigration status.
Because a complex problem like racial profiling requires a complex solution - one that leaves no one subject to racial profiling behind.
Andrea Ritchie is a Black lesbian police misconduct attorney who has engaged in extensive research, writing, litigation, organizing and advocacy on profiling, policing, and physical and sexual violence by law enforcement agents against women, girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of color in over the past two decades.
The views expressed here by our guest blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Rights Working Group.