Racial Profiling: One More U.S./Brazil Commonality

A little over a week ago in São Paulo I witnessed my first spontaneous police frisking on the street. It went a little something like this:

I was walking in one of São Paulo's nicer neighborhoods, returning from a NGO visit with two of my friends. On the other side of the street two black youth about my age, so late teens or early twenties, were passing in the opposite direction. A police SUV rolls by at the top of the street. The cruiser slows ominously, and immediately guns it down the street in our direction, screeching to a halt right in front of the black youth.

Three or four members of the polícia militar (the main police force in Brazil) scramble out of the cruiser, guns leveled directly at the two young black men, fingers on the triggers. The young men, well dressed in stylish t-shirts and jeans, immediately put down the shopping bags they were carrying—apparently from high end stores—and placed their hands on their heads.

The police immediately search both of them, patting down their entire bodies, around their waists, down the insides of their thighs, to their ankles. There were no initial questions, “Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Why are you carrying these designer bags?” just an immediate search. Needless to say, delicacy was not part of the equation. At that point we three turned and kept on walking up the street. I could not hear if any more conversation went on—we just did not want to get mixed up in it.

It was a pretty brutal scene, not exactly the type of thing you expect to see walking around Vila Madalena, one of the nicer neighborhoods in São Paulo. At least for me, this was not the reality that I grew up with. Watching it in person was deeply disturbing. Being the person stopped on the street at gunpoint must be a whole other story.

In the U.S. those two young men would have had the right to refuse to be frisked. At least from what I gathered from the friends I was with that is a right that the Brazilian constitution does not offer to its citizens, or that is not enforced at any rate. Then again, depending on where you are in the U.S. and who you are I do not know if you would be able to successfully refuse a frisking either—you might just end up as the target of police brutality. I would like to say this type of profiling is something that only happens in Brazil, but it is not. Funny how our own constitution applies differently depending on the color of your skin, or what neighborhood you are in.

Given the way that the Global North and Global South are popularly portrayed one would think that there were vast differences between the two created by different developments and different cultures. What really strike me, though, are always the similarities. Sometimes I play a game, trying to spot news stories in the U.S. that would be considered "normal" or "expected" in the conext of the Global South or Brazil. What I have found is that, if you look closely, corruption of government officials, kickbacks for buddies in high places, and rent seeking all exist in the U.S. too. Racial profiling can go right on that list. I just wish that what made our countries so similar was something that I was more proud of…