Updated:9-20-2011; 5: 36 p.m.
By Ann-Marie Adams, Commentary
HARTFORD — Denise Lynn Nappier plays by the rules.
The first African-American elected to a state-wide office in Connecticut, State Treasurer Nappier usually carries herself in a dignified manner and has never been one to publicly talk about race. So I wondered what it was like for her to be cornered in a parking lot walled in by two high-rise buildings as I watched closely the news coverage of her Sept. 1 traffic stop by three Hartford police officers. And I noticed a coordinated effort to shift the news coverage from the thorny double issue of race and gender.
To date, we don’t know why the three police officers decided to run a check on Nappier’s 2011 Ford Crown Victoria at about 8: 30 p.m. that night at 385 Barbour St. But we do know there’s a tendency to look elsewhere for explanation with matters involving race and racism.
First, the Hartford Police Union’s Vice President Nazario Figueroa issued a statement that contradicted Nappier’s account. Then we had the department of motor vehicle spokesperson’s response to the media, clouding the credibility of Hartford State’s Attorney, Gail Hardy, the first African American appointed to that post. Luckily for Nappier, the unedited police account supported her story. And a DMV spokesperson realized he misspoke. But for a while, the public was left with the impression that these two accomplished and high-profile black women fabricated their story.
Attempts to consciously, or unconsciously, cloud the issue with confusion underscore this salient fact: this is about race and how intrapersonal racism supports structural racism. Connecticut has the highest incarceration rate of blacks and Hispanics in the nation.
Traffic stops are another entry point into the system. On any day of the week, the New Britain Court house is filled with black and brown bodies waiting for trials for traffic violations, which in some cases are handled with lack of discretion. Without lawyers, defendants fight with only one tool: determination to prove thier innocence, not knowing the system usually supports the officers and render guilty verdicts–despite evidence to the contrary. And the state will collect its fines.
The high number of minorities in the judicial system—just for minor traffic offenses—is no doubt, in part, a result of racial profiling. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, examples of racial profiling are the use of race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations (commonly referred to as “driving while black or brown”).
Nappier instinctually knew she was profiled and was determined to fight. Good for her. But she must now use her platform to put a name to what we call neo-racism.
Despite the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, black females are the most oppressed group by men and women. So it’s not far-fetched to believe that on this September night, a white female officer decided to show Nappier the privilege of whiteness—coupled with a police uniform.
It didn’t matter that Nappier was a taxpayer who deserves professionalism, courtesy and respect. Officer Jill Kidik felt it necessary to cut Nappier down a peg or two, a remnant of the harsh labor system of cruelty and repression against enslaved Africans who resisted subordination. Their insubordination was met with increased restrictions and punishment. Black females especially are punished for violating the dominant culture’s code of conduct. Having an “attitude” is code word for being a “sassy negress.” If you want to understand the subtleties of these codes rooted in slavery, watch the movie, The Help. In the Nappier affair, Kidik served as an agent of racism and sexism.
Former Hartford Mayor Thirman Milner recalls a similar incident of racism 28 years ago. One night, he was walking on Albany Avenue, and two white female officers stopped him. They were belligerent. Afterward, they discovered he was the mayor. And to justify their behavior, they wrote in a report that Milner was drunk and wobbling along the Avenue. So they stopped him.
Then Police Chief Bernard Sullivan knew Milner was not a drinker. And on that night, Milner left a city council meeting—not a bar. Clearly, Sullivan recognized the officers lied. And he reprimanded them.
Almost three decades later, we have a city confronting the same issue: police officers fabricating reports. So we now have a glimpse into a possible cause of Connecticut’s high incarceration rate among minorities.
That’s why I have to fault Nappier for how she responded to a reporter when asked if she thought it was racial profiling. Despite her so-called three-mile walk home with much time for reflection on the incident, Nappier’s response was: “I don’t know.”
Black women have been profiled since they landed on these shores. Even the venerable Oprah Winfrey was a victim of racial profiling at a high-end department store. But unlike Nappier, Winfrey and Milner, most poor people don’t have cell numbers of high-ranking officials.
I’m not saying all police stops with minorities involve racial profiling. But in examining this case, I wondered what the motive was for a random check on Nappier’s state issued car.
In addition, I know Kidik had other options for Nappier after she discovered her identity. Kidik could have had Nappier call a tow truck at her own expense to tow it back to her house. Or tell Nappier to check into the situation the next day. Or call a supervisor. Kidik chose to administer the most severe punishment for what was clearly a mix up. Something she wouldn’t have done if she had stopped Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
So Nappier has an obligation to call this incident what it is: racial profiling. As Congresswoman Maxine Waters said: name it. The fact that the stop was in a “high-crime” neighborhood is irrelevant. It’s the personal interaction between Nappier and the white female officer that turned this arrest into a racial issue, according to reports on racial profiling.
Kidik had a set of rules for black, uppity females. That double standard is called discrimination—not poor judgment.