Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Profiling Racial Profiling

Sometimes, stories in the media take on a life of their own.

And before you know it, a whole new reality has been constructed out of an insubstantial collection of facts and even less authoritative assumptions.

Case in point:  the Trayvon Martin shooting tragedy.  Forget all of political posturing over this case for a moment.  Last week, all you-know-what broke loose amongst Southern Baptists when one of their executives, Richard Land, made some poorly-worded and carelessly potent charges against blacks in general and supportive of racial profiling in particular.

At least one friend of mine, a black pastor from Maryland, has joined with Rev. Dwight McKissic, an evangelical black pastor here in Arlington, Texas, in demanding that the SBC denomination "repudiate" Land and his remarks.  Meanwhile, as you might expect, this debate spilled onto the sidewalks outside of the Baptist inner circle and become fodder for liberal websites and news organizations across the United States.

Having Baptists airing their dirty laundry within earshot of the media is like handing candy to a baby.

What is It, and Who Does It?

One of the most contentious flash-points in this Baptist brawl involves the issue of racial profiling.  As I understand it, racial profiling refers to the generalizations we make about somebody based on their initial appearance, and our reflexive physical and mental responses to those generalizations.  In its most politically-charged scenario, racial profiling can cast the other person in a disadvantageous light, or at least in a way that results in a negative viewpoint of them on the part of the profiler.

In other words, with racial profiling, we look at somebody and deduce basic stereotypes based on assumptions about a group, not the person's individual character.  When whites racially profile blacks, this usually means we denigrate blacks because of preconceived notions about them that are mostly negative.

Yet I would propose that not only do many whites engage - however subconsciously - in racial profiling, but so does everybody else.  Black, Hispanic, Asian:  everybody engages in racial profiling.  For better or worse, it's part of how we navigate our cross-cultural world.

When you make a call to a law firm, and a principle at the firm answers his phone, "Ira Silverstein here," what immediately pops into your head?  "A Jewish lawyer," right?  And you immediately assume that, at least if he's going to work for you, you'll probably win your case.

When you hear that an accomplished musician with an Asian-sounding name is going to perform at your local concert hall, what immediately pops into your head?  "That will probably be some exquisite music," since we've come to assume all Asian musicians are impeccable masters at their craft.

When an elderly, black woman is walking down a dark block during the evening, and she sees a tall, young, white man walking towards her, is her first instinct to grip even tighter on her purse, because he might mug her?

When many Hispanics encounter whites here in north Texas, they avert their eyes and step out of the way, hoping to avoid any type of interaction.  This is likely because they either don't speak much English, and are intimidated by the language barrier, or they don't want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves because they're in this country illegally.  Yes, those are two racial profiles I've just drawn, but aren't these Hispanics racially profiling us whites?  Assuming we don't speak Spanish, or that we'll turn them in to immigration authorities?

Indeed, racial profiling is far more complex a scenario than many people like to believe.  Our profiling doesn't even have to be racial.  Why do you think ex-prisoners have such a hard time finding a job?  Why do many car salesmen and mechanics treat their female customers differently than their male customers?  Why do retail chains stock different items based on the geographic locations of their stores?

Why have our airport screening measures become so intolerable these days?  Because the Transportation Security Administration is bending over backwards to avoid being accused of profiling.

Why do your insurance rates vary from your next-door neighbor's?  Because insurance companies and actuaries have developed lifestyle patterns that affect your rates, and they profile you according to those patterns

From Profiling to Perspective

Of course, none of this is intended to excuse racism.  Or even profiling.  This is an explanation of profiling, not a justification for it.  Profiling itself does not justify racism, either.  Racism exists whether profiling exists or not.  Some people will just hate people who are different from them regardless of whether they have any data to support a negative profile.  Indeed, the reason profiling exists is because data has been collected to lend a certain level of support to the profile.  Profiles don't just create themselves, like racism does.  True, profiles may still be horribly inaccurate, out of date, or simply incorrect, but racism can exist even when a particular profile doesn't.

Admittedly, the more I consider the comments from the SBC's Land, the more I can hear him talking out of both sides of his mouth.  He both theorizes that George Zimmerman initially profiled Trayvon Martin as a thug teenager, and then calls for restraint in making judgments until all the facts are known.  But we don't really know what Zimmerman thought of Martin when he first saw him, except that the hooded figure looked out of place in their gated community.  And the shooting apparently didn't take place until a few moments later, when Zimmerman had lost sight of Martin in the darkness.  Anything else is pure speculation at this point.

It may very well be that Zimmerman utilized racial profiling as that evening's scenario with Martin developed, and if Zimmerman deduced from his racial profiling of Martin that the teen posed a mortal threat simply because he was black, then we'll have a case of unmitigated racism of the ugliest order.  And we'll need to address that accordingly.

But right now, we simply don't know for sure.

Personally, I think if Zimmerman, upon seeing Martin, considered the hooded figure to be a threat, he wouldn't have abandoned the relative safety of his car, and go against the 911 operator's orders to stay in his vehicle.  It makes more sense that it wasn't until Zimmerman continued to insert himself into a confrontational posture with Martin that the fears of mortal danger flooded his mind.  At that point, if Martin displayed aggression first, it likely wouldn't have mattered to Zimmerman if he was black or white or purple.  And what if Martin racially profiled the light-skinned Zimmerman?  Might there have been dueling racial profilers?  Here again, at this point, I can only speculate.

As can anyone else.  And that's perhaps almost as bad as Martin losing his life that fateful night in Sanford, Florida.  Because people are name-calling, ranting, and becoming bitterly divisive on hearsay and speculation.  We don't know if Martin lost his life because Zimmerman profiled him as a person who needed to be killed simply because he was an unknown black teenager.  Would Zimmerman have shot Martin if the teen was white?  It all comes down to why Zimmerman pulled the trigger, and we won't know that for sure until his trial.

As for the racial profiling component, I could take offense that some black people might be profiling me because I'm a white guy in suburban Texas, so how could I possibly have anything relevant to bring to this discussion.  Instead, I'll take the high road and wait for Zimmerman's day in court.

Not because racial profiling caused the death of Trayvon Martin.  But because we don't know whether it did or didn't.

In the meantime, all of this bitter acrimony only makes the path to justice for Martin's family - and indeed, for race relations in the United States - that much more elusive.
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