A few weeks ago, the New Orleans Inspector General reported that he could not tell if the NOPD institutionalized racial profiling, because the department used such crude methods in collecting data during its stop and frisk program.
I found this report almost insulting, in that all one has to do is garner opinions from law-abiding black men who’ve been stopped for no apparent reason. While the latest controversy over racial profiling stems from the recent implementation of Chief Serpas’ “field interview cards,” the practice is far from new.
When I first arrived in New Orleans in 2004, I grew dreadlocks that cascaded down my back like a black falls. I emigrated from Washington, D.C., where wearing dreadlocks signified cultural consciousness and reflected a trendy urbaneness. The feedback I received from the literati and hipsters told me so. However, as soon as I arrived to New Orleans, dreadlocks connoted a much different vibe.
I first became aware of the difference in hair perception by the surprises I received from the apparent dichotomy of speaking like established gentry and adorning long nappy hair. Certainly, long hair generally conveys rebelliousness or free spiritedness. Nonetheless, the bow ties, burgundy loafers and argyles I wore threw folks of all hues off balance.
However, the real difference in how my hair was generally perceived between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans became clear after Katrina when I purchased a Ford Mustang convertible. The same ’05 Mustang that gave me cool in the spring made me hot to police. I started to get pulled over quite frequently. I seldom received a ticket, and the reasons for stopping me were laughable. Police officers claimed they didn’t see my seat belt. My least favorite reason was that “I fit the description.”
After becoming numb to what became routine stops, I did two things that forever changed my life in New Orleans. I cut my hair and I started driving a Toyota Prius. Immediately, I noticed a change in the frequency of police stops. I even conducted a small social experiment. I left the temporary tags on the Prius to see if I would be pulled over. I amazingly went at least four months after the temp tags expired before my wife begged me to change them. I did, but I was not pulled over during that entire stretch.
One day soon thereafter, I decided to ask a police officer if the difference in stops was in my head or in my hair. The officer frankly replied, “You had a hot car and locks? You’re asking to get pulled over.” The officer confirmed my experiences. While the officer cavalierly answered, anger swelled in my chest. Racial profiling is a tool that only exacerbates the already antagonistic relationship between the police and black men and boys. We should all be offended when any New Orleanian is treated unfairly. In particular, black men should be up in arms before they’re down in cuffs.
There’s a policy recommendation in my experiences. NOPD should give all black men access to haircuts and Priuses. Sadly, instead of empowering black men for change, we’ll criminalize them. If racial profiling actually reduced crime, I would be less angry about these policies. But profiling doesn’t reduce crime; it increases it. Profiling is a crime, but I don’t have the privilege to live with it.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (Twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.