When Karle Robinson reported that Tonganoxie Police held him at gunpoint, handcuffed him, and demanded papers demonstrating home ownership when they discovered him moving into his new home, the episode conjured images of South African Apartheid.
During Apartheid, black South Africans faced humiliating, arbitrary police stops. They had to produce government-issued papers that determined where you could live, what job you could have, even whom you could marry.
We agree with Mr. Robinson that his race – he’s black – factored into his detainment. We agree that his detainment was humiliating and arbitrary. We also believe America won’t dismantle racial injustice until we bury the kinds of casual but caustic customs of racial perception seen in Tonganoxie.
South African whites based apartheid – which translates to “apart-ness” – on American segregation. Government bureaucrats actually determined a person’s race via perception.
“The whole legal infrastructure of Apartheid rested on racial classifications,” wrote Angela Thompsell, an associate professor of British and African history at the College at Brockport, in a ThoughtCo.com article.
Thompsell wrote that 1950 legislation organized South Africans into one of three races: white, native (black), or colored. They enforced this hypothesis in demeaning ways, such as the “pencil test”:
“If a pencil placed in one's hair fell out, he or she was white. If it fell out with shaking, 'colored', and if it stayed put… 'black'. Individuals could also be subjected to humiliating examinations of the color of their genitals, or any other body part the determining official felt was a clear marker of race.”
But is America really so different? Wasn’t race an organizing principle for this nation (3/5ths Compromise, Separate but Equal?) Don’t “perception” customs persist? Don’t African Americans still live under the burdensome perceptions white police officers have of them?
African Americans routinely face this treatment from law enforcement and not just in Tonganoxie. Daily, police harass black people for stealing their own car, barbecuing in the park, or awaiting Starbucks meetings. In the system, they receive harsher sentences for similar crimes.
Black women have endured warrantless, roadside body cavity searches from American police. Black men endured years of “stop and frisk” tactics – which also included body cavity searches -- in New York City. A Pittsburgh jury recently acquitted an officer for shooting a fleeing, unarmed, 17-year-old in the back.
The officer perceived the black youth as dangerous even as he ran away from the officer.
This behavior enjoys state sanction because it’s also custom.
Suspicion is enough to incur a humiliating detainment or arrest. Is it any wonder that black people account for six percent of the Kansas population but 30 percent of prison inmates?
Had Mr. Robinson actually expressed his considerable outrage in that moment, he could have been shot and killed and the officer promptly exonerated by uttering that he “feared for his life.”
When darker skin is probable cause, we need a better standard.
Otherwise, all we have here is just a kinder, gentler brand of apartheid.