Race, Arrest and Incarceration in New York City

12/29/2011 11:25 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2012
  • Alan Singer Social studies educator, Hofstra University,my opinions, of course, are my own

Every summer I teach a history class at Hofstra University for teachers called "Race and Class in United States: Past and Present." I start the class with a little known quote from a nineteenth century book by Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the country in the mid-1830s. I think the essence of De Tocqueville's observation about American society, one that I agree with, is that democracy and prosperity for White people in the United States is purchased at the expense of social inequality and the denial of equal rights and opportunities for Blacks.

"I do not believe that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere... A despot who should subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain" (Democracy in America, v. 1, chapter 18).

Among other topics we discuss in class is whether racism persists in American society today. Generally, the debate among the teachers breaks down along racial lines. Overwhelmingly, although not universally, White teachers acknowledge racism in the past, but see it as significantly diminished in the present and no longer a major factor to be concerned about. Their evidence tends to be the prominence of wealthy Black celebrities such as Kobe, Oprah, Denzel, and Snoop Dogg, the acceptance of Black culture by mainstream society, especially by young people, and in recent years, the Barack Obama phenomenon.

Inevitably, Black teachers in the class and some Whites respond that changes for a few have not transformed life for the many. As evidence they commonly site economic inequality, higher unemployment in Black communities, poorer school performance, as well as arrest and incarceration rates.

A recently released study found that by age twenty-three almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime. While this study did not examine racial differentials, other studies document racial imbalance in arrests and incarceration.

According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic blacks accounted for 39.4 percent of the prison and jail population in 2009 although they made up only about 12 percent of the country's population. The United States Census Bureau reports that about a third of the people arrested in 2009 were Black.

According to a 2009 report by the human rights group called Human Rights Watch, "Blacks have been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than whites for nearly three decades, even though they engage in drug offenses at comparable rates." According to FBI reports, adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges between 2.8 to 5.5 times more than White adults every year from 1980 through 2007.

The New York Civil Liberties Union claims "about 3 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2010, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD's own reports." In 2010, 601,055 New Yorkers were stopped by the police of which 517,458 were totally innocent of any crime (86 percent). 
Amongst this group, 51 percent were reported as Black, 33 percent as Latino, and less than ten percent as White. In response, local political leaders including the Manhattan Borough President and a prominent State Senator from Brooklyn are calling for a federal civil rights probe of the New York City Police Department.

Just examining economic and crime statistics is not enough to convince anyone about racism. People who argue race is no longer a significant factor in the United States are willing to blame poverty. Many Whites and even some Blacks place the blame for poverty and crime on Black people themselves.

Sometimes, some of the Black students in the class offer personal testimony, either about their own experience with the police or the experience of a close friend or relative. In forty years of teaching in the New York metropolitan area I have never had a Black student who did not have a story to tell. While White students have been sympathetic to the unfortunate experience of a classmate, they generally dismiss this as evidence of a more pervasive problem.

However, a recent op-ed piece in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times may make it harder to ignore the impact of discriminatory police action on young Black men in inner-city communities. In the title of the essay, Nicholas Peart, a twenty-year old student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, asked "Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?" Peart reported that between the age of eighteen and twenty-three he was stopped, frisked, held at gun point, and handcuffed on four separate occasions by New York City police officers and each time released without so much as an apology. He is now part of a class-action lawsuit, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al, being brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights against the New York City Police Department that "challenges the NYPD's practices of racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and frisks. These NYPD practices have led to a dramatic increase in the number of suspicion-less stop-and-frisks per year in the city, with the majority of stops in communities of color."

As a teacher, Mr. Peart's story rings true to me. In 1990 I was teaching high school in Brooklyn when one of my students, a sixteen-year old African American male, was arrested on his way to school in a drug sweep on his block. It was before seven in the morning and the police figured anyone out at that time was suspicious. I discussed this story and the Peart essay with an African American man who is a cooperating teacher and part of the doctoral program at Hofstra University. He replied by relating his own tale of being held at gunpoint by the NYPD street crimes unit when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor. He referred me to a book by Michelle Alexander (2010), The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

I plan to use the Peart essay in my class on "Race and Class in the United States" this summer and invite this teacher to participate in the discussion. Hopefully Peart's experience will make it difficult for White teachers to so easily dismiss what continues to be such an overwhelming aspect of the Black experience in the United States.