Hollywood couple a target of racial profiling?

NEED TO KNOW
  • Two African-American actors claim they were racially profiled and harassed by a South Carolina sheriff's deputy
  • The Marion County, South Carolina, sheriff is promising an investigation

It's a story you'd expect to see in a drama set in the 1960s: a black couple driving through the South encounters a suspicious sheriff's deputy, who makes one unfounded accusation after another against them before handcuffing them for dubious reasons.

However, it wasn't some Hollywood period piece. Actors Cherie Johnson and Dennis White claim it happened to them in real life just last week. The story of the California couple's horrific South Carolina traffic stop, which they recounted for a CNN iReport, has gone viral.

Johnson and White tell Showbiz Tonight their ordeal has left them determined to take a stand against racial profiling.

"We've been conditioned to just think that it's OK - that we have to just sweep it under the rug," White says. "But we're not doing that no more. We're fighting."

Their ordeal began as they were driving to a romantic getaway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  They say that they pulled off a rural highway in Marion County, South Carolina, to take pictures. When they returned to their car, a sheriff's deputy was waiting for them. They say the officer repeatedly asked them about drugs (which they say they didn't have), and said Johnson had a warrant out for her arrest -- which, the deputy later admitted, was not true.

"After he told me that I did not have a warrant for my arrest, and he started asking me about drugs for the third time, I said, 'Are you doing this because we're black?' And that was when everything took a turn for the worst," Johnson says.

Johnson says the deputy walked back to his car and put on gloves. "The next thing I knew," she tearfully recalls, "he was handcuffing Dennis."

Johnson and White say they both ended up handcuffed. Shortly after another officer arrived on the scene and recognized Johnson, they were released and sent on their way -- without, they say, so much as an apology.

Ironically, the show that gave Johnson her best-known role -- the popular '90s sitcom "Family Matters" -- also dealt with the topic of racial profiling in a 1994 episode (young Eddie Winslow is pulled over by a racist police officer whom Eddie's dad - a police sergeant - later confronts). And even though that episode aired almost 20 years ago, Johnson said it saddens her that racial profiling still goes on and that people aren't surprised by her and White's ordeal.

"So many people have gone through it too," she says. "I don't understand how come they haven't fought it and how come they just let it go."

The Marion County Sheriff says he's not letting this incident go. "Discrimination in any form, including racial profiling, is strictly prohibited by this department," Marion County Sheriff Mark Richardson says in a statement to CNN. "I can assure you I will take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the allegations of racial profiling made by Mr. White and Ms. Johnson."

For their part, White and Johnson want the officer who allegedly harassed them fired. "I hate for a man to lose his job," Johnson says. "But he does not need a badge and a gun."

But more than that, White says he hopes the couple's horror story will have a broader impact. "We can't fight it by ourselves," White says of racial profiling. But he hopes their story will spark "a concerted effort to eradicate it."

Watch Showbiz Tonight's entire interview with Cherie Johnson and Dennis White at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HLN. 

 

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