Two predictable things happened the instant Django Unchained star, actress Daniele Watts, an African-American, was detained by an LAPD officer in Studio City, California in response to a lewd public behavior call. The first was that Watts' loudly charged that she was being detained only because she was black, in short she was a target of racial profiling.
The second was the swift and loud counter from the LAPD that her color had nothing to do with the stop but resulted from a report of an offense and that she fit the description including her attire of the alleged perpetrator. The sharp clash over whether Watts was profiled or that the stop was in fact simply a case of an officer doing his duty, namely good police work, again is the perennial elephant in the closet question in the ferocious debate over whether police target blacks and Hispanics in street stops under the guise of fighting crime.
The ACLU and civil rights groups again charged that these stops are racially motivated. Police groups and city officials heatedly deny it. They counter that the stops not only are warranted but are the major reason for the plunge in crime to the lowest level in decades.
There's not much debate, however, over whether police do stop tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics yearly on the streets and that they are far more likely to be stopped than whites. A recent USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll rammed home the gaping disparities in perception among blacks and whites about racial profiling. Whites overwhelming said that profiling based on race doesn't happen and blacks overwhelmingly said that it does. The Watts case brought the issue dramatically to the spotlight.
There's little question that she was stopped because she fit the profile of the alleged suspect but that begged the question of who made the call and why they did it and why the finger automatically was pointed at a black woman in of all places Studio City. This fit the all too familiar pattern of suspiciously eye balling blacks who are walking, driving, or shopping in predominantly white neighborhoods. It also fits the even more insulting, degrading and humiliating pattern of black women being the special target of vicious racist profiling of them as lascivious, immoral, and prone to lewd behavior especially with or around white males. Watts's boy-friend is Caucasian.
That said it raised the other thorny, troubling and at times confusing issue of when stops such as this are made are citizens automatically required by law to show their ID to an officer. Watts did not immediately comply with that demand from the officer and their exchange over why can be clearly heard on the audio tape of their encounter. Even if someone perceives that they are being stopped solely because of their race, or in fact, they are being stopped because of that with no charge of a crime or even the suspicion of one being committed, the hard reality is that successive court rulings, including a Supreme Court ruling, are unequivocal. When police detain someone even though there is no arrest, they have the right to ask for identification and the detainee must show it or be subject to arrest. Civil liberties groups have challenged this on the grounds that this gives police the unfettered power to stop, search and harass citizens without any checks or safeguards. The courts have brushed this argument aside with the retort that police would be severely hampered in crime fighting without the authority to require a detainee to produce identification.
Unfortunately, the Watts stop did meet the low bar legal requirement in which she was legally compelled to show identification. This, of course, in no way cancels out the equally hard reality that blacks and Hispanics are stopped in wildly disproportionate numbers to whites, often times sans any crime or even the suspicion of a crime being committed.
The equally troubling and largely unanswered question is why many of those who have been stopped have been prominent black and Latino professionals, business leaders, and even some state legislators and House representatives? The national firestorm over the cuff and momentary arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates tossed the ugly glare back on the susceptibility of even celebrated black men to be hauled off when there's even the slightest suspicion, mistaken or otherwise, of criminal wrongdoing. President Obama has said that there were times in earlier days when he felt that he had been profiled by Chicago police and U.S. Attorney general Eric Holder was even more pointed and claimed he was stopped and harassed by police during his student days and as a federal prosecutor. This is a burning question that the LAPD and other police agencies continually grapple with.
The Watts stop was tragic and as it turned out unnecessary. But if anything it did toss the glare back on the eternal issue of when is it race profiling or not.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.