Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There’s a racial history behind these types of laws that connect with disparities in enforcement overall.
While there are many blessings that come with living in Arlington, Virginia—in all of its creative, murder-free, urbanist bliss—there are some curses. One is that you can’t curse, at least not in public, without getting slapped with a misdemeanor. That once meant a $100 fine; now, make it $250. As The Washingtonian reports, the Arlington County Board just voted to increase the fine for profanity and/or public intoxication.
And it really is an unambiguous “and/or.” Virginia criminal code on “profane swearing and intoxication in public” states:
If any person profanely curses or swears or is intoxicated in public, whether such intoxication results from alcohol, narcotic drug, or other intoxicant or drug of whatever nature, he shall be deemed guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.
Arlington County criminal code reads:
It shall be unlawful for any person to be drunk or profanely to curse or swear in any public place in the County.
Arlington isn’t the only place to adopt this kind of law. In Rockville, Maryland, you also can’t “profanely curse and swear or use obscene language upon or near any street, sidewalk or highway within the hearing of persons passing by, upon or along such street, sidewalk or highway.” (You might want to watch your road rage on the Beltway.) And in 2012, residents of a small suburb outside of Boston voted for a $20 fine for people with filthy mouths.
Arlington’s new $250 fine comes after county police there reported making 664 arrests for public intoxication and profanity last year. The Virginia State Police report “2014 Crime in Virginia” lists 669 arrests throughout the county, the grand majority of them at colleges and universities.
Of the total number of drunkenness arrests, 28 percent were of African Americans, while 70 percent were of white offenders—this in a county where African Americans make up only 8.9 percent of residents while whites make up 77.3 percent, according to Census figures.
When it comes to disorderly conduct arrests, which could include abusive language, the arrest rates are even more obscenely lopsided: 2,283 arrests of African Americans, or 55 percent of all disorderly conduct arrests, compared to 1,832 arrests of whites, or 44 percent.
Arlington would benefit from creating fewer reasons for police to transact with its residents, especially its black residents. According to an analysis of police data by USA Today last year, Arlington’s arrest rate for African Americans was 202.9 per 1,000 residents 2011-2012, compared to 30.6 per 1,000 residents for arrests of non-blacks. Misdemeanor arrests are no small deal, given that failure to pay the fines could lead to driver’s license suspensions—which you don’t want to happen in a state like Virginia where you need a photo ID to vote, or to be able to drive to and from a job.
It should be remembered that laws like these have a history of racism embedded in them. Petty crimes like swearing in public, or just talking too loud in public, were among a long list of offenses that under “black codes” and “pig laws” would earn African Americans stiffer punishments than whites who committed the same offenses in the late 19th century. When poor black southerners couldn’t afford to pay the fines, they got sucked into the vortex of prison camps and convict leasing—which essentially placed them back in slavery.
As explained in this teaching guide for the PBS series “Slavery by Another Name”:
With these laws, there was a huge increase in the numbers of blacks arrested and convicted and then forced to labor under two systems: convict leasing and peonage. Many black men were picked up for these minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and when faced with staggering fines and court fees, they were forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them. In Southern courtrooms, men were ensnared into peonage primarily through two methods. In many cases, defendants were found guilty of real or fabricated crimes, and were fined for both the crime and additional court fees. When the men were unable to pay, a local businessman would step forward to pay the fines. The convict would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the debt was paid off.
This is not to say that cursing in Arlington today is going to send black people back to chattel slavery. But any city in a state like Virginia that elects to drive up the price for such victimless crimes should understand that there’s a long racial history behind this, which makes certain Americans want to holler and curse to begin with.