The Divisive Color Line
Michael Bendok | JULY 4, 2020
In 1903, W.E.B Du Bois preemptively remarked “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line: the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men” (DuBois 197). The term refers to racial segregation ingrained into societal standards and codified though discriminatory laws which are still evident a century later. White individuals above the color line have access to privileges and institutions which individuals of African descent are denied access to. Justified through the principle of “separate but equal,” the color line created unequal societal and economic playing fields in which skin color dictates access to privilege. This inequity is evident to this day.
The abhorrent legacy of the color line is codified in discriminatory stop and frisk policies. The specific term stop-and-frisk was coined in New York when the first law passed in 1964 allowing police to stop, interrogate and frisk any person whom they believed to be involved in criminal activity and in possession of weapons. Fifty-four years later, former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg has come under fire for making this dehumanizing policy a lynch-pin of his mayoral run. Since Bloomberg assumed office as mayor in 2002, “more than 80% of stop and frisks in the city of New York have been of African Americans or Latinos” ("Stop-and-Frisk Data”). This reality is disheartening because the city has a Latino and African American population of 52.6% (“Race and Ethnicity in New York”). The efficacy of police force operations should be contingent upon the use of probable cause on the basis of crime, not the basis of race. When the color of an individual’s skin becomes the target of discriminatory policing, the fabric of law enforcement’s moral code becomes pierced with gaping holes. Guns should be treated as reactive measures charged with deterrence and pointed at criminals for their crimes, not proactive weapons aimed at civilians on the basis of their skin color.
While Bloomberg’s justification for this policy is contingent upon the claim that nobody was hurt during these encounters, he fails to see the enormous corrosion of trust between police officers and the communities in which they operate. To understand the ramifications of the color line, Bloomberg must be taken at his word when analyzing the justification for stop and frisk. For his administration, the purpose of stopping individuals on the streets of New York on the basis of the least auspicious reasonable suspicion rather than justifiable probable cause is to prevent crime, keep community safe, and keep citizens content. Analyzing this ambition through the lens of the color line’s implications allows a clear view of Bloomberg’s failures. Those under the color line are disproportionately targeted for crimes that are assumed to carry a jail sentence. Thus, the entire system is tilted so minorities fall into the prison system while whites continue to have access to economic opportunity without their adherence to the law put to question. Even though 9 out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, minorities are still four times as likely to be marginalized by the policy than their white counterparts (“New NYPD Data Shows Racial Disparities”). While an analysis of the color line implies more economic opportunities are provided to whites due to this policy’s outcomes, the NYCLU statistics mitigate this impact. However, every individual targeted by the problematic policy is affected by a more pervasive issue. Civilians living in neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisk rates experience high rate of “nervousness, feelings of worthlessness and emotional distress, as well as anxiety and symptoms of PTSD” (“Aggressive Policing and Mental Health”). The amount of melanin in a person’s skin should never be an indicator of their mental well-being. Bloomberg’s policy physically and emotionally suppressed those under the color line for over a decade.
Only when Bloomberg took the national stage on a progressive pedestal was his policy challenged and denounced. This reaction is important because in the democratic party, minorities are agents of change as they comprise the majority of the voter base. Bloomberg only apologized for his actions when those he affected had the power to dictate his position of power. Intrinsically, the democratic party challenges the color line because those under the divide decide the political fate of those above it. Essentially, to be champions of progressive policies, politicians must bridge the color line to heal the wounds of the divide it has created. As champions of change, we must bridge the color line so that it doesn't tear our nation apart.