Chapel Hill: Opinion

Wanda Hunter: Confronting our unconscious race bias

Kudos to Chief Chris Blue of Chapel Hill and Chief Walter Horton of Carrboro for hosting recent community forums.

In both gatherings, the questions quickly turned to the issue of racial profiling. For those of us who are white, concerns are sparked by a daily diet of news media reports and videotapes of what appears to be unjustified police violence against people of color.

For our black and brown citizens, the concerns are more personal. Folks are tired of being singled out and followed in stores, in cars, on the streets; stopped for humiliating searches, inconvenienced as they go about their daily lives often for nothing more than “looking like a suspect.” At a more urgent and desperate level, people of color in our community are afraid for their children when they come into contact with those whose job it is to protect their safety.

Are these concerns justified in Orange County, a place known for its progressiveness on social issues? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Law enforcement data collected by the N.C. Department of Justice over the last decade reveal that a black motorist stopped by Carrboro Police Department is 233 percent more likely to be searched than a white motorist. For stops and searches by the Chapel Hill Police Department, the differential is 148 percent; for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office 114 percent.

A Hispanic motorist stopped by the Carrboro Police Department is 253 percent more likely to be searched than a white motorist; in Chapel Hill the number is 128 percent, and in Orange County 143 percent.

Few of these searches were based upon any evidence that the car contained evidence of a crime – the overwhelming majority of those subjected to searches were stopped for routine traffic, minor equipment, or regulatory violations. Nor were the searches of people of color more likely to turn up contraband than the searches of white motorists. The percentages of searches in which motorists were found with contraband were roughly equal between Blacks and Whites being searched. For Hispanics, in all three jurisdictions, the searches of the cars yielded significantly fewer discoveries of contraband than those of Whites.

Often when such data are presented, the assumption is that people of color are simply more likely to be involved in criminal acts. We rarely consider the fact that people of color and white people receive different treatment by law enforcement for exactly the same infractions.

Take the possession and use of illegal drugs, for instance. Although white Americans are just as likely to violate drug laws than people of color, people of color are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes. In some states black men have been sent to prison on drug charges at rates 20-50 times greater than white men.

Lives being ruined

This is not inconsequential. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in three black men will have contact with the criminal justice system and approximately 1.4 million black men – 13 percent of all adult African American males – are disfranchised because of felony drug convictions. One in fourteen black children has a parent in prison.

The racial disproportionality observed in law enforcement and the criminal justice system is replicated in every state and municipality across the nation. Lives are being ruined and families and communities are weakened.

All this said, it’s also important to say that I believe our local law enforcement leadership are concerned about the statistics in their departments and are anxious to achieve greater equity in police work. The difficulty is openly acknowledging the impact of race and the continued association of blackness and crime in our national consciousness.

Strides have been made in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate by race. But culture always lags behind policy, and racial schemas built over 400 years of history now operate unconsciously. Recent studies on the concept of unconscious or “implicit” bias emphasize how we make 95-97 percent of our decisions quickly and automatically based on deep-seated associations that may be at odds with our values and our intent. Surely police work, where decisions have to be made quickly, is likely to be impacted by unconscious beliefs related to race.

The good news is that implicit bias, once acknowledged and understood, can be reduced with conscious effort and practice. We also have the examples of Fayetteville and Durham, both of which have recently enacted new policies designed to discourage racial profiling by law enforcement including the requirement that law enforcement personnel have training that specifically relates to racial bias and equity. Space does not allow the listing of all of the measures enacted by these two cities, but they include racial equity training for police; enhanced data collection on officer encounters with citizens; periodic data analyses and the disciplining of officers who systematically engage in racial profiling; and requiring written consent to search for all vehicle and building searches.

Chief Blue and Chief Horton are to be commended for beginning conversations with the community. Let us hope that the conversations continue as we work together to create equitable enforcement of the law and a community where none of us have to worry about our children.

Wanda Hunter is a long-time resident of Chapel Hill. You can reach her at