Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Racial Profiling

Today is Wednesday, August 7, 2013.

The trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin thrust the issue of racial profiling into our faces.  Racial profiling is only one type of profiling that exists.  There is also gender profiling, ethnic profiling, religious profiling and profiling based on national origin.  

Profiling of all types involves the use of personal characteristics (race, gender, ethnicity, religion or national origin) to make generalizations about a person.  This is never a good practice but it gets really ugly when we assume that a person is committing a crime or about to commit a crime based on any of these factors.  

If you heard that a pair of students set off the fire alarm, would you suspect a pair of girls or a pair of boys? Based on gender profiling, you would tend to suspect boys.  Who was put on no-fly lists right after the events of September 11, 2001?  Anybody who looked Middle-Eastern or who had a Middle-Eastern name.  That's ethnic profiling or profiling based on national origin.  Who gets stopped in border states like  Arizona and Texas?  Mexicans, that's who.  (Ethnic profiling.)  If you heard that a bomb exploded in a large shopping mall and that terrorists were suspected, who would you suspect?  Christians?  Jews?  Buddhists?  Probably not.  Probably Muslims.  (Religious profiling.)  When you stop your car at an intersection at night and you notice a group of black men congregating on the sidewalk, you check to be sure your car doors are locked. (Racial profiling.)  Would you do that for a group of Asians? A group of white kids?  Probably not, unless they all had motorcycles. (That's another kind of profiling.)

ABC took their cameras to an unnamed park in May 2010 to film a segment for their show, What Would You Do?  They chained a bicycle to a post just off the walking path, and asked three different actors to try to cut the chain.  The white male actor was there for several hours, and nobody challenged him on his ownership of the bike.  The black male actor, dressed similarly to the white guy, was challenged only minutes after he began to cut the chain.  One white guy said he was going to take the actor's tools.  The cameras were reset and once again the black male actor was challenged, to the point where one onlooker called 911 to report a man stealing a  bike.  Then a young, beautiful female actor started cutting the chains, and not only did nobody question whether she owned the bike, but several guys offered to help her, even when she told them she was stealing the bike. (Gender profiling!)  Here's the video

We all know racial profiling exists, but we don't all own up to it.  After Trayvon Martin was shot, the Internet was full of little essays written by people who wrote, "I Am Trayvon Martin."  A few of them owned up to white privilege, writing, 'I Am Not Trayvon Martin"  Strangely enough, very few have written, "I Am George Zimmerman."  One who did, Nicole Sotelo, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, said, "I don't own a gun. I don't live in a subdivision. I don't stalk people or profess to be an armed neighborhood watch, trailing someone solely because I am suspicious of his or her appearance. But at times, I perpetuate systems of racism."

Blogger Daryl Rowland, in HuffPost Politics, wrote, "If President Obama could have been Trayvon Martin, anyone in white America could have been George Zimmerman... That is, most white or non-black Americans have at times instinctively profiled African Americans as more likely to be dangerous than people who are not. They have all reacted like Zimmerman did in his mind. The difference is that Zimmerman had a lethal weapon on him and lived in a state that allows and even encourages citizens wield guns in public altercations."

It's true that the human brain excels in pattern recognition, a defense mechanism designed to allow us to make snap decisions about what is dangerous and what is not.   This type of snap decision-making naturally involves simplifying and filtering out data.  Unfortunately, when our snap decisions are wrong, the reason they are wrong tends to be this very information that we have filtered out.  Want an example?   George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin carrying something and decided he had a gun, and figured he was probably on drugs or something.  He was carrying something. Yeah.  A can of iced tea and a package of Skittles candy. 

Black parents have to be very careful to teach their kids how to respond when they are confronted by police, and they often give their kids very specific advice, such as the advice actor Levar Burton gave his own kids (and follows, himself).  In this video, Burton explains what he does when he is stopped by police. 

In the video, Don Lemmons, a young black interviewer, mentions that when he was stopped by the policeman, the officer asked him, "Where'd you get this car, nigga?"  The white person he was with was shocked.    Tim Wise, who is white, and the author of Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Facial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, described having a New Orleans cop offer to help him break into his locked car when he had locked himself out, never once asking him for ID or checking to see if he actually owned the car.  He commented that his folks taught him to be nice to police officers, but that they never had to tell him not to move his hands, or he might get shot.  "That's white privilege," he said.

TV host and commentator Melissa Harris-Perry expressed that she was glad when she found out she was pregnant with a girl, because she knew a boy would not be safe.   Panelist Joy-Ann Reid expressed concern that the conversation black parents have with their kids about how to respond to police would have to be extended to how to deal with racial profiling on the part of civilians.  Here's the video.

There are all kinds of statistics that show us that black males are stopped, questioned, searched, ordered out of their car, etc. much more often than their white counterparts.  Statistics also show that when whites are stopped, it's usually because there is a good reason, and illegal weapons and drugs are found on them in a high percentage of instances.  For blacks, the percentage of people who actually had a weapon or drugs in their possession was relatively low, indicating that officers detained them on the basis of their skin color, rather than on the basis of evidence that they were carrying out or about to commit a crime.   Persons of color are arrested out of proportion to the number of persons of their race in the general population.   In New York City, where the mayor has instituted a "Stop and Frisk" policy, whites Asians, and Native Americans comprise only 13.3% of the population, but they account for 47.3% of the arrests.  Latinos are 29.3% of the population, but account for 33.7% of the arrests.  Blacks account for only 23.4% of the population, but they account for 53.0% of the arrests.  

Racial profiling doesn't really solve any problems.  It diverts law enforcement resources from actually catching criminals, who often go unnoticed because they don't "fit the profile" of the projected perpetrator.  It undermines national unity and lowers respect for law enforcement.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to xenophobia and hate crimes. 

Bishop Eric Freeman, a black pastor in Columbia, SC, told Time Magazine that he is now facilitating a workshop for young black men called "Live 2 Tell," in which he tells the participants how to minimize themselves as targets of profiling and how to respond to the police when they are stopped.  He says that there must be a four-pronged approach to eliminating racial profiling.  First, voting rights must be protected for all persons of color.  Secondly, "Stand Your Ground" laws must be repealed.  Third, anti-profiling laws must be passed.  Lastly, violent crime and gun proliferation must be stopped.  I like Freeman's approach, but I do have a few comments.  

First off, it's very sad that black adults have to teach their kids how to "minimize themselves as targets" of profiling, even if it does help to keep them from being shot.  The only way things will change is if we as a nation can keep this issue front and center and continue talking to one another about it.  Since the Zimmerman verdict, there has been a lot of dialogue, some of it incendiary, but much of it very thoughtful and insightful.  Let's keep talking.

As for voting rights, the Supreme Court has made it easier for certain states, such as my own, to continue to make it hard for people of color to vote.  I live in South Dakota, and the people who have the most trouble voting are Native Americans.  In other states, it's blacks or Hispanics.  The Constitution supposedly gives everyone the right to vote, but voter registration, access to polling places, and the type of ballots used are different in each state.  Until these things are made the same in all 50 states, it will be hard to solve the voter disenfranchisement issues.  If, for example, all states were required to have polling places within a ten mile radius of every voter in the state, South Dakota could not force Native Americans to travel 25-50 miles to vote.  If all states had the same type of ballot and counted votes the very same way, it might be easier to spot corruption and fraud.

The repeal of Stand Your Ground laws will face the same problem as voting rights laws.  The Stand Your Ground laws are state or local laws, so until there is a way to challenge them on a national basis, they will remain on the books.  If a case is challenged in the Supreme Court, it may be declared unconstitutional, but then, the Supreme Court tends to make narrow rulings that often go against our general sense of justice and fair play.

As for anti-racial profiling laws, it is important to realize that racial profiling is already illegal, according to the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from search and seizure except for "good reason."  The problem is that the color of a person's skin is not a good reason, and this needs to be spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. :-/

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