Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed

From a young age, I was taught that as long as I didn’t look for trouble, I wouldn’t get in trouble with the police.

Thankfully, for me, that has been the case. I’ve never looked to cause any trouble, even with something relatively harmless like marijuana, and I haven’t gotten into trouble.

But because of institutional racism, which I defined in my introductory post in the institutional racism series as “racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions,” the story is often different for those who don’t look Caucasian.

For example, some of my brother’s elementary school friends who were people of color got into troubling situations with the police, even though they weren’t looking to cause trouble (yes, you read that correctly: elementary school). For example, these friends were often searched thoroughly by police under a practice in New York known as “stop-and-frisk,” even though there was zero evidence of their carrying weapons. On the other hand, you never heard similar tales from my brother’s and my white friends or from my Caucasian family. It was therefore no coincidence that the bias against people of color in stop-and-frisk was so severe that some people called it “walking while brown.”

These stories seemed to fit with the actual statistics on stop-and-frisk. For example, a May 2012 New York Times article cited by Forbes said that “85% of those stopped were black or Hispanic even though those groups make up about half of NYC’s population.” With a statistic like this, there is validity to the claim that someone is stopped for “walking while brown.”

Readers might be looking at these statistics and thinking, “Fine…you have stories and statistics, but where does the institutional racism come in?” To find the answer, it’s important to look at how stop-and-frisk was justified—it was justified by saying that people who are deemed a threat need to be stopped. Hence, by using stop-and-frisk disproportionately on people of color, an institution (the police) was sending the racist message that a disproportionate number of people of color were a threat.

While stop-and-frisk in New York City is much less common than it once was, the idea among many law enforcement institutions that people of color are still a threat still exists. From two people of color getting arrested at a Starbucks in spite of doing nothing wrong to a graduate student at Yale having her ID taken away after she slept in a common room and was getting called in as a potential threat by a white student, there are still widespread stories of people of color—many of whom are doing nothing wrong—being treated like threats and criminals.

In contrast, similar stories are never heard of from light-skinned people like me. You see a white person sleeping in the common room at college? The thought is that, “Oh…the person has studied a ton. No big deal.” You see two white people at a Starbucks waiting to meet with someone? You don’t think anything of it, probably. But people of color doing these things are viewed as a threat by many people, law enforcement or not.

As I said in the beginning of this piece, I was taught from a young age that I would not get into trouble if I didn’t seek trouble. As it turns out, though, I might not have gotten into trouble even if I had sought some trouble.

At the same time, I recognize that it is a different story for friends of mine who are people of color. It is a different story because of the startling disparities between the way whites are policed and the way people of color are policed. Indeed, institutional racism exists in the way that I, and others, are policed.

This image is from a march against racially disproportionate policing. The racial disparities in the way practices like New York City’s stop-and-frisk was implemented raised concerns about racially disproportionate policing. By longislandwins [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Update as of November 24, 2019: While this series on institutional racism ended long ago, the issues I addressed in this post have become relevant again due to the renewed scrutiny on Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy while he was Mayor of New York City. In case you were wondering, the stories and statistics I have of stop-and-frisk in this post are from Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure in New York. The current scrutiny over this tactic exists because he declared his candidacy for President of the United States today, just one week after he apologized for his use of the tactic while he was mayor.

I am hoping that this post serves as a reminder that, regardless of his apology and regardless of whether you believe in his apology, the institutional racism that led to Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk is still relevant.

As for readers who didn’t expect a post from me until after Thanksgiving, sorry about that. I figured that this post is too relevant not to re-publish right now.

19 Replies to “Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed”

  1. An important statistic to consider on stop and frisk is that street crime in NYC happens in a handful of zip codes overwhelmingly populated by people of color.

    One has to consider the continuing housing segregation in NYC as one analyzes the aggregate statistics.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for talking about this. When I was 19, I was pulled over by the cops by turning right on red even though it was legal at that intersection and there were no cars that were close by. I was terrified when that happened and I was lucky to have lived through that experience. I’ve seen my Caucasian peers doing all kind of crazy stuff that I would never get away with if I did the same thing. Justice shouldn’t be color-coded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      That’s wild. I’ve heard similar sorts of stories from friends who are also people of color–friends who got attention, friends who got pulled over, for things far less than what someone like me (a Caucasian) could get away with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Brendan.

        It was a scary experience to say the least. I hate how there are ignorant people who say it’s playing the race or victim card. That’s so fallacious and I know what happened to me would never happen to someone of a lighter complexion if they were in the same situation. Thank you for understanding.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting info, Brendan. On the one hand, I contemplate that blacks commit so much more crime than other races statistically, so while that doesn’t make it right to stereotype, there is a root for people’s fear of blacks. On the other hand, I wonder how statistics would or wouldn’t change if whites were policed as heavily as blacks; for example, I’ve read that whites and blacks smoke weed at about the same rate, yet blacks are more likely to be caught/charged.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lily.

      While I wouldn’t consider myself a criminal justice expert, based on what I have found and researched over the years has led me to the working conclusion that statistics would look quite different if whites and people of color were policed in the same way. You brought up one example: the policing of weed. Whites and people of color have smoked weed at about the same rate, yet people of color get arrested at nearly 4 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession: One can see how marijuana legalization has become a racial justice issue. And that’s before the disparities with other crimes as well. I don’t know how the numbers would look if the policing of whites and people of color were comparable to each other, but I hypothesize that they would not look the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am white so I cannot fully understand the injustice of racism. But I can do my best. In my opinion, and I used to live in NYC, the problem is that the vast majority of police officers are white. City leaders are white. Politicians are white. I live in Texas now and it’s the same down here. So you’ve got white cops, who very likely have biases, because to be honest we all do, and they are supposed to serve citizens, many of whom are black. What do you think happens?
    Interesting too is what’s happening in Baltimore. The city has a large black community. And half of the police are black. You would think there would be more fairness between cop and citizen right? Turns out, as I read about in one of the big news magazines, those black cops are more racist against black citizens than the white cops! So what in the hell can be done? There is a disproportionate amount of black men in our prisons. They have families. They may have been put there unfairly. Maybe the judge was white? And the district attorney? The discrimination against black people in America must stop! It has gone on way way too long and never should have started in the first place. Being a white American these days is just embarrassing. Look at how the Europeans look down on us. The whole world does! It. Has. To. Stop. Now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm…do you have a link to that magazine piece? I would be interested to read. I wouldn’t be surprised though–the thing about systemic racism is that it entangles all who are in the system, regardless of skin color.


    1. That’s a good point. In many cases, the racial distribution of police officers does not match the racial distribution of the communities they serve. To make matters worse, relations between police and many communities of color is such that this is unlikely to change significantly anytime soon.


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