In the last few weeks, the insane election coverage has buried a more profound story: Racial profiling exists! For years, stories of black and Latino drivers being searched on the basis of skin color alone were dismissed as anecdotal. But according to 91,000 pages of documents released by New Jersey officials last week, racial profiling has been standard operating procedure in that state for the last decade, and 80 percent of the state’s highway searches have involved black and Latino drivers.
The New York Times is all over the story. On October 12, David Barstow and David Kocieniewski reported on the first batch of newly released documents. They found major news: In 1997, it appears, top state officials withheld evidence of racial profiling from the Justice Department. The Times obviously intends to milk this scandal for all it’s worth. It ran reports on the New Jersey confession three days last week, and recent editorials have all but accused former attorney general Peter Verniero of obstruction of justice.
As a side note, the Times has discovered the dirty little secret of racial profiling: It is also the official policy of the U.S. government. On November 29, Kocieniewski reported that since 1986, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Operation Pipeline has taught state and local police to make highway stops on the basis of race. In New Jersey, police were specifically taught to arrest Colombian and black males.
The unconstitutional drug war is a national scandal, and the Times is right to blame the DEA for it. But it’s not news. Esquire first broke the story in April 1999, when it published “Driving While Black,” a 7400-word feature asserting that racial profiling is a case of “your tax dollars at work.”
The Esquire story was written by Gary Webb, who is best known for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series accusing the CIA of using the cocaine trade to buy guns for the Nicaraguan contras. After Webb was attacked by the mainstream press and repudiated by his own paper, one of his few defenders was Esquire‘s Charles Bowden. In the course of writing a 1998 profile of Webb, Bowden researched the CIA-drug allegations and found a “mountain of evidence” to back them up.
Webb was grateful to Esquire at the time, and he now welcomes the Times‘ reporting on Operation Pipeline. “It’s nice to see that they finally realized there’s a story there,” he said in an interview last week. “The piece reached the same conclusions I did: that this is a federal program that’s been going on for a long time, that it hasn’t been monitored, and that it has led to abuses in just about every state it’s been in.”
Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman is also pleased with the Times‘ piece on Operation Pipeline, which he calls a “hell of a story.” He says it was originally reported by Barstow and Kocieniewski, but then Barstow was sent down to Florida. “If we had had a reasonable election,” Landman says, “the story would have run a few weeks ago.” Landman says he was not aware of Webb’s work on racial profiling. But Barstow obviously was, because he called Webb last month to discuss it, according to Webb. Barstow and Kocieniewski did not return calls for comment.
It’s no surprise the Times didn’t give Webb any credit. According to Esquire executive editor Mark Warren, after all the flak Webb caught for the CIA allegations, “the media were fairly resolved not to read or trust or give credence to anything he wrote.” Warren says that while the Times imprimatur offers “further confirmation of the quality of Webb’s reporting, the tragedy is that Gary Webb is still out in the cold.”
There’s a reason why Operation Pipeline has received so little news coverage: Like many drug-war programs, it has received classified status from the U.S. government; its administrators are not obliged to disclose information to the public. Webb just happened to get lucky. After getting hired by the California state legislature in 1998, he was asked to conduct a study of the California Highway Patrol, which gave him access to classified documents.
These are a few things he learned: In the late 1980s, highway police in several states observed that they could increase productivity by stopping drivers who were minorities, even if they had no other probable cause for a search. Pooling that intelligence, the DEA began teaching racial profiling to highway police nationwide. By the mid 1990s, Webb reports, minorities accounted for 80 percent of all Pipeline arrests in Maryland and California. He first published his conclusions in Esquire in April 1999.
In June 1999, the ACLU published “Driving While Black,” a study by law professor David Harris. Like Webb, Harris concluded that racial profiling is a DEA policy, launched in 1986 and sanctioned by recent Supreme Court decisions that allow police to use traffic stops as “a pretext in order to ‘fish’ for evidence” and skin color as “evidence of the propensity to commit crime.” According to Harris, Operation Pipeline has taught racial profiling to 27,000 police officers in 48 states. (www.aclu.org)
Also in June 1999, the ACLU sued the California Highway Patrol, claiming that the agency “routinely violates the rights of African American and Latino drivers by targeting them on the basis of race.” Like suits filed by the ACLU in other states, this one has the power to obtain official documents on racial profiling. The ACLU put pressure on the California legislature, which reluctantly released Webb’s report in September 1999. (See www.aclunc.org/discrimination/webb-report.html).
There’s lots of evidence the drug war targets minorities, but the Times has been slow to catch on. In June 1999, two months after the Esquire story ran, Jeffrey Goldberg tackled racial profiling for the Times Magazine. It was a fun story, but safe, quoting cop apologists and raising the ACLU’s claim that the DEA teaches racial profiling only to dismiss it.
Then the Times turned to “Race in America.” You would think an expensive series aimed at winning a Pulitzer might have investigated how cops treat blacks, which Goldberg had called “the most charged racial issue in America.” Instead, the series only touched on racial profiling once, obliquely, in a story last July about minority cops who refuse to engage in it.
Goldberg, now with The New Yorker, wrote this about racial profiling: “Anecdotes are plentiful, but hard numbers are scarce.” According to a current Times staffer who chose to remain anonymous, “So often, the Times needs an astonishing amount of evidence presented by official sources for something to be a big story, when in fact the reality was there all along.”
Times editor Landman says the idea that the Times relies solely on official sources is “ridiculous.” “We have and impose on ourselves a high level of proof,” he told me. “It’s a standard that prefers persuasive evidence to people’s opinions.”