What Stop-and-Frisk Means to the Descendants of Slaves

Racial profiling is a lazy reversion to an older America—a nation that wasn't designed with black citizens in mind. This post is part of a debate series on “Is Stop and Frisk Worth It?," an article featured in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine.
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"United States' slave trade: 1830" ( Library of Congress )

Jehu Grant was a Rhode Island slave who escaped the bondage of his anglophile master to join the fight for American independence. He was in his eighth month of service in George Washington’s Continental Army when the military returned him to his owner. Years later, Grant obtained his freedom papers and, as an 80 year old indigent man who’d lost his eyesight, he applied for the military annuity authorized in the Pension Act of 1832. His appeal was denied because the War Department determined that a slave could not also be a soldier. Despite a commitment to America’s founding principles and a mortal fight for liberty, he was denied capital gain by the very nation in which he’d literally placed his blind trust.

Grant’s story is instructive: as a black man, I know America was not intended for me. This is not an indictment; it’s just reality. When the nation was forged from fruited plains and purple mountain majesties, it was crafted for a specific, privileged segment of the population. The founding fathers determined that the actual construction of the republic was a higher priority than ensuring that the rights it promised were available to everyone. Pragmatism ruled over idealism. Despite a national gospel that deified freedom and independence, the exclusion of black liberty was coded into the American DNA.

This is what Daniel Bergner ultimately details in his April Atlantic article, “Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?” The proactive policing program is ostensibly an honorable attempt to provide safe communities. But whether or not the program is effective (the rationale and statistics have so far been insubstantial), the discriminatory way it is carried out reflects the same pathologies that thwarted our first attempts at liberty. Stop-and-frisk isn’t racist on purpose. It was just born that way.

Real equality—the kind our nation took significant strides towards 50 years ago, with the Civil Rights Act—is a complex endeavor. Our Constitution may have formulated certain rights, but securing them for every citizen is an iterative process. As history has shown, this is difficult even in homogenous societies. So it’s especially complicated in a country where black bodies once hung from trees like tire swings, and police power-washed nonviolent black protesters who made reasonable claims for basic civil rights.

Stop-and-frisk is a lazy reversion to the old America—a sort of “freedom as usual.” It allows officers to single out particular groups, based solely on race, to detain and search people who seem to fit particular well-worn stereotypes. It doesn’t cultivate the kind of respect and goodwill needed to reconcile the race-based wrongs of the past or earn trust from the people it avers to protect. On the contrary, it reinforces the dangerous narratives that communities of color have combated for generations.

But the American idea is powerful enough to resist this backward pull. Though our Declaration of Independence was written without any regard for the descendants of slaves, its words surpass the vision of its imperfect executors. In fact, it is the grandiosity of our founding documents that makes progress inevitable. If nothing else, America loves ambitious goals, and striving for true equality is an ambition far beyond what our founders could have imagined.

Today, we are closer to that achievement than we’ve ever been. Practices that were once the norm, such as lawful segregation and acts of terror against black citizens, have given way to more equitable treatment. We are not perfect, but we are not required to be. We are simply obligated to continue striving towards the good society that we all desire.

The American project is a rough-hewn expedition towards an ideal. Since its inception, we’ve had to brave precipices and cross bridges—from Moore’s Creek to the Edmund Pettus—to bring our nation closer to its professed creed. It's been a slow, deliberate march, slower than many would have hoped, but the end goal has always been clear. Policies like stop-and-frisk are weary retreats in the wrong direction.

As a military officer, I see all this as much more than a philosophical debate or curious observation. As Jehu Grant did, I wear the uniform of this country and would give my life for the protection of its principles. I volunteer to serve, even though my American experience is littered with discrimination and injustices.

But when I shed my uniform and pull on a hoodie, I should not have to suffer the indignity of racial profiling, of having authorities challenge my freedom and my essential humanity. The promise of America, my own birthright, demands better.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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