Given the hue and cry over racial profiling -- particularly the state trooper-created "offense" of "driving while black" -- it's a little strange that so little has been made of the recent ruling of a federal appeals court in New York.
The ruling, in effect, dismissed the claims of black male residents of Oneonta, N.Y., and black male students at the State University of New York College at Oneonta (SUCO) that they were mistreated by local police in a 1992 sweep in search of a burglary suspect.
You may remember the case. A 77-year-old woman in the mostly white town of about 10,000 said she was attacked by a black man in her home near the SUCO campus. She told police she hadn't seen her attacker's face, but knew (by looking at his hands, one of which held a knife) that he was black and (by watching his gait as he crossed her room) young.
The police asked a SUCO administrator for a list of its black male students. The list of some 125 names was handed over, and the police tried to locate and question everyone on it. When that yielded nothing useful, police swept the town, stopping almost every black man they saw and inspecting their hands for cuts. (The attack victim said she thought her assailant might have cut himself.)
Black folk in Oneonta and across America were outraged -- with the SUCO administrator, Leif Hartmark, for violating their privacy and rendering them up for what they saw as abuse of their rights as citizens, and with the police for relying on a victim's vague description to make every black male resident, student or traveler through the town a criminal suspect.
Some of those who were stopped sued. They needn't have bothered. The case against Hartmark was dismissed in February 1997 by a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals sitting in Manhattan. It was unclear whether the rights of the plaintiffs had been violated, the court ruled. A few weeks ago, that same 2nd Circuit court dismissed the complaints against the police administrators, saying their tactics did not constitute discriminatory racial profiling because the officers were looking for a suspect in a particular crime on the basis of a description.
Some description. A description that fit almost every black and sprightly man in the town. Forget about "driving while black," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Try "breathing while black," he said. "Trust me, if some poor guy had innocently cut his finger while slicing a tomato for dinner, he would have landed in jail."
Think about it. The black motorists on the interstates who are stopped as suspected drug couriers on (the statistics would indicate) grounds that conspicuously include their race at least are let go if the troopers' suspicions turn out to be groundless -- unless, of course, they overreact to the insult and what they view as racial harassment, in which case all bets are off.
But imagine a black student unlucky enough to have cut or scratched himself -- slicing tomatoes, hanging Venetian blinds or working on his 10-speed -- within a day or two of the assault. Who can doubt that he wouldn't have been jailed? And who can imagine how he would have cleared himself? A police lineup would have been useless; the victim never saw the man's face. She should be expected to identify his hands?
How many people can have an airtight alibi for 2 o'clock on a particular Friday morning? Even if the luckless one had managed to win acquittal on appeal (it wouldn't have surprised me greatly if a local jury had convicted him), wouldn't a lot of us think he'd gotten off on a "technicality?"
For a guy who has seen and heard about a lot of police misconduct during nearly four decades of newspapering (and who has experienced a bit of it himself), I retain a certain amount of respect for people -- including cops -- who try to do their jobs.
I wouldn't have expected the police in Oneonta to ignore the sliver of a description they had. But it was amateurish to go from that sliver to turning the town's black male population into a company of humiliated (and I dare say frightened) suspects.
What is far more disturbing, though, is that a federal appellate court -- no amateurs there -- can look at the facts of this affair and say: No problem.
Now that's a problem.