3 Epic Racial Profiling Blunders from History

Racial profiling not only harms innocent people of color, it can cause law enforcement to lose crucial time in pursuing the true criminals.

Every once in a while, the issue of racial profiling rises above the countless smaller humiliations and injustices people of color in America suffer daily, sparking a national conversation. Generally, it’s when we’re shocked to attention by a particularly dramatic case: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Oscar Grant, to name a few. There’s no more striking example of the problem than when an innocent person dies—horribly, violently, and unnecessarily—as a result of implicit racial biases.

But there’s an additional critical downside to using prejudices as a substitute for police work: It doesn’t work. That’s one of the takeaways from a new report released Thursday by the NAACP. For example, nearly 90 percent of those stopped in New York City’s widely criticized “Stop-and-Frisk” were black people or Latinos. But the program has led to relatively few arrests, the ACLU reports. Guns were confiscated in less than 0.2 percent of stops, for example.

Ironically, sometimes when law enforcement officials are pursuing the brownest guy, the bad guy (or girl) is getting away. The NAACP put together some historic examples of times throughout American history when authorities botched investigations in part because they were too distracted by a stereotypically “suspicious” individual:

The assasination of President William McKinley. Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. James Parker and the McKinley Assassination

In 1901, Leon Czolgosz—the white anarchist who shot U.S. President William McKinley—was able to escape scrutiny while carrying a revolver hidden under his arm in a sling. Meanwhile, Secret Service agents were distracted by the black man, waiting to shake the president’s hand, in line behind him. After the first two shots were fired, the “dark complexioned man,” James Parker, fought Czolgosz for his gun, preventing the president from being shot a third time.

Image of FEMA crews at the site of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Oklahoma City Bombing

After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, police initially devoted their efforts to searching for an “Arab terrorist” allegedly responsible for planting the bomb. The bomber was indeed a terrorist, but a thoroughly domestic—and white—one. Timothy McVeigh, a member of the anti-government militia movement, was actually arrested leaving the area, for driving without a license plate and for carrying illegal firearms. He was already in jail when he was identified as a suspect three days later.

3. D.C. Sniper Attacks

In 2002, Washington, D.C., was under siege by a series of sniper attacks from a mysterious shooter along Interstate 95. According to the NAACP, police were searching for someone who fit the profile of a serial killer: a lone white man driving a van. Authorities also questioned prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to investigate a Cuban connection. It was later discovered the shooters—African Americans John Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Malvo—were taking turns firing shots out of the trunk of a moving car. Police had previously been in touch with the pair “at least 10 times,” the NAACP reported.

The car used by the Washington, D.C. snipers


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