Phi Beta Cons

Racial Profiling at the University of Virginia

The October issue of Vanity Fair features a long article asking, “After a Rape Story, a Murder, and Lawsuits: What’s Next for the University of Virginia?” Prominently discussed is the arrest last March of 20-year-old black UVa undergraduate Martese Johnson, who was turned away from a local bar.  “After questioning the validity of his ID, two white state Alcoholic Beverage Control (A.B.C.) agents had him pinned to the ground. With rivulets of blood lining his face, he was heard to scream, ‘I go to U.Va.! I go to U.Va., you fucking racists!’”

The charges against Johnson (“obstruction of justice without force and profane swearing and/or intoxication in public”) were recently dropped, but the local prosecutor also found that charges against the arresting Alcoholic Beverage Control officers were not warranted. Nevertheless, Johnson has just filed a lawsuit against A.B.C. and the individual officers.

The October Vanity Fair also contains a long article by Johnson in which he describes his treatment as one more example of the long legacy of slavery and nominates himself as the newest member of the pantheon of police victims.

The next morning, a video of my encounter with law enforcement went viral, and #JusticeForMartese became a nationally trending hashtag. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose—my name is now mentioned alongside theirs.

Johnson claims that he was victimized because of his race. “Why would I be subjected to such violence when so many other students in similar circumstances … were left alone?,” he asks in Vanity Fair. “With the untold thousands of college students in Charlottesville that night, it is difficult to believe that my race did not play a factor in the way I was handled by the officers.” The arresting officers, he noted, did not see a University of Virginia student out with his peers; they saw a young black male with a high-top fade, a gold chain, some tennis shoes, and a hoodie.” In short, Martese Johnson with his high-top fade, gold chain, etc. complains that he was treated differently from other UVa students because of his race. 

Such complaints are common at UVa. Last month, for example, the Black Student Alliance’s bi-weekly column in the Cavalier Daily, “On The Over-Policing of Black Students,” criticized unwarranted police attention.

As per tradition, the Black Student Alliance, Collegiate 100 and National Pan-Hellenic Council had a first home football game kickoff on the Lawn … and, like clockwork, two University police officers arrived not long after us….  [N]aturally, the only mass of blackness on the Lawn would attract police attention … police always seem to find their way toward black spaces.

According to the aggrieved author, no other groups of pre-game partiers were similarly policed.

Martese Johnson and other UVa black students are in effect complaining about racial profiling, about singling out black students and treating them differently because of their race. It sounds like a principled argument, but it is not. It is wrong for the state to distribute either benefits (such as preferential admission) or burdens (such as racial profiling by police, stopping or arresting blacks disproportionately for the same offenses committed by others) on the basis of race. If treating black applicants to UVa differently because of their race violates no principle, why does it become a violation once they arrive?

Obliviousness to the contradiction between principled opposition to racial profiling by police or airport screeners and support of it in college admissions and hiring is not limited to undergraduates. As I have pointed out at some length here, here, and here, distinguished Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy has virtually made a career out of wrestling, unsuccessfully, with this contradiction. Nor is Kennedy alone (here is another distinguished law professor failing to resolve that contradiction). 

Martese Johnson’s lawsuit may answer the question of whether he was treated discriminatorily by Virginia ABC agents, but it will do nothing to resolve the contradiction between opposing taking race into account by some agents of the state and supporting it by others.


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