Is Racial Profiling Ever Okay?
I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.
I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn’t so much that neither he nor Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture. That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position. But as a logical argument, Cohen here is falling afoul of very poor statistical inference. For example, the vast majority of newspaper op-ed columnists in America are white men just like Richard Cohen. But that doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to see a white man walking down the street and assume he’s a newspaper columnist. If you look specifically at Jewish men, you’ll see the stereotype that we are disproportionately represented in the field of political commentary is absolutely accurate. And yet it is still not reasonable to assume that some randomly selected Jewish man is a professional political writer. Even right here on the mean streets of Washington, D.C.—a city that’s legendary for its high rate of punditry—a clear majority of Jewish men are not pundits. It’s just a very rare occupation.
By the same token, the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street and begin treating them like criminals.
For example, since moving to a majority black city 10 years ago, it is the case that 100 percent of the people who randomly assaulted me on the street were African-American. And yet that was a single incident on one day out of thousands. The overwhelming preponderance of black men I walk past on the street on a day-to-day basis—even the young ones, even the ones wearing hoodies—aren’t committing any violent crimes. If I were to start questioning every single black male teenager I come across as a criminal suspect, I would very much be engaged in unreasonable behavior.
Well, yeah, but is that really what Cohen is asserting here? Isn’t it more reasonable to read his claim more narrowly?
Here’s what I mean. Yglesias was beaten by two black men on a DC street years ago. If you live in Washington DC, and you are the victim of violent crime, your assailants are overwhelmingly likely to be young black men. Yglesias is certainly right to point out that it is unreasonable (and uncharitable) to conclude that every young black man you come across in DC is a potential criminal. But it is reasonable to assume that if you are going to be a violent crime victim in DC — as most people in Washington are not, and never will be — then your assailant will almost certainly be a young black male.
How does this play out in real life? When I lived in DC back in the 1990s, if I was walking back to my apartment on Capitol Hill after dark — the Hill was not nearly as safe then as it is now — I would cross the street if I saw young black men dressed like street thugs coming at me. Those men could have been fine upstanding Christian gentlemen, but I wasn’t willing to take that chance. Had I passed them at high noon, I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. But at night, in that neighborhood, with them wearing those clothes, I made a choice. Had they been black men in office wear, I wouldn’t have given them a second look. The fact is, they fit the visual and demographic profile of the overwhelming majority of street criminals in Washington, DC, in those days. Chances are every time I did that, I was making an inaccurate negative judgment of those teenagers. But you know, given what was going on in DC at the time — e.g., a friend and co-worker was made to lie face down with his girlfriend in front of their Capitol Hill house while a black male thug held a pistol to their heads as he robbed them — I was willing to accept the risk of having committed thoughtcrime.
If a teenage white male chose to cut his hair and present himself like a skinhead on the streets of a city in which there had been lots of skinhead attacks on minorities, would you really say that a black, Hispanic, Asian or Jew would be wrong to cross the street at night when he saw white guys who fit the visual and demographic profile of skinheads coming? I wouldn’t.
Yglesias is correct to say that it is irrational — and it is racist — to assume that because black men are disproportionately involved in violent crime, therefore all black men ought to be regarded as criminal. But where do you draw the line? It is wrong to assume all men are rapists because all rapists are men, but if my daughter is walking home on a dark street at night, and she sees a man coming at her, I expect that she will cross the street to improve her chances at safety, no matter how much it hurts the man’s feelings.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that the a problem with racial profiling is that it causes the “annihilation of the black individual.” He has a point. None of us like to be seen only as a member of a group, and certainly not when the stereotype is used to marginalize us as unworthy. Last year, in Paris, I met an American neurosurgeon traveling with his wife. He and his wife were disgusted by Paris because many Parisians mistook him for an Arab (he was Latin American), and treated him rudely. The man was really hurt and angry, and I didn’t blame him. I can imagine how French Arabs must feel. In fact, I don’t have to imagine it, because a white French friend of mine is married to an Arab — French-born, secular, well-educated, a business executive — and they both told me that the racism he has to put up with is terrible. At the same time, the Arab population in France has many of the same problems that the black population in the US does, in terms of a higher degree of crime, social dysfunction, and so forth. It’s hard to judge from the outside of French society.
I can’t pretend to know what it’s like for an American black man with regard to people viewing him with suspicion, but in trying to imagine what it feels like, I thought of two times I was made to feel not like a person, but like there was nothing more to me than my color — and it caused people to judge me negatively. The time that stands out to me was years ago, when I was applying for a newspaper job that I really wanted, and was told that I was perfect for it. Then the paper stopped returning my calls. Finally, an executive there told me that either the editor-in-chief or the publisher, can’t remember which, decreed that a minority or a woman must be hired for that job. It was humiliating and infuriating to me. All I was to that newsroom executive was a white male. The quality of my writing, my work ethic — nothing mattered. All they saw was race and gender. And the paper thought it was being progressive! I was insulted, hurt, and embittered by it. Fortunately, by the time they got around to calling me and saying that they couldn’t find a woman or a minority whose qualifications matched mine, so they’d be willing to talk to me about the job, I had another, better job, and could tell them to get stuffed. Still, throughout my journalism career I’ve worked in newsrooms in which racial profiling for the sake of hiring was not only done, it was positively embraced as a virtue, and called “diversity.”
Now, the deleterious racial profiling happened to me once, and it didn’t cost me in the end. If I were a black man, and I had to put up with that kind of thing all the time, it would make me hard and angry.
A more recent example came in some of the political arguments going on in my parish (county), over governmental reform. It turns out that the black community, at least to judge by those who have been speaking out, are being racially deterministic to a degree that’s shocking in this day and age. One black citizen who spoke at a meeting even argued that whites cannot represent blacks. It was straight-up racist. It is confounding and hurtful, and it is just flat-out wrong. All this woman sees is color, not individuality, and there are many like her. The bigotry on display is depressing as hell.
On the other hand, it must be conceded that because for almost the entire history of this parish, black people had to see all white people as the potential enemy, for their own survival. I heard a story a couple of years ago about a town in the next parish over. A wealthy white man with a terrible temper shot and killed a black man on the main street, in broad daylight, because the black man supposedly disrespected him. The white man never had to answer in court for the murder. That was something like 80 years ago, but within living memory, black people were being terrorized by the Klan and its allies. If you wanted to be safe, better to see all white people as potential threats. Now, I know for a fact not all black people did that, that many were able to discern good whites from ones who would likely harm them. But who could blame blacks for looking at whites not as individuals, but as an undifferentiated Other, given that to make a mistake on that front could cost them their lives? Times have changed, but you don’t erase that cultural memory so quickly.
On the other hand, the crime stats, etc. A young black woman in my town and I were talking last week about racism, and how much things have changed locally — and how they haven’t. She said that she sees a fair amount of casual anti-white racism in the black community, which is no surprise. She did surprise me, though, when she said that her mother profiles workmen when it comes to getting things repaired. The woman said her mother prefers to hire white repairmen because based on experience, she trusts them to do better work. Who am I to argue with this woman’s experience? Who are you? If it was your money at stake, would you profile in this way?
We all profile, in the sense that we make generalizations about people, often based on a lack of knowledge, fear, and prejudice. Even the best among us do it. I’ve read interviews with holy elders from Mount Athos, men who have reached a level of spiritual perfection I cannot imagine attaining, but who will come out with some outrageous anti-Semitic conspiracy statement that makes you just shake your head at their stupid bigotry. Last summer I invited a couple of French tourists over for tea. At some point in the conversation, they talked about Americans and our guns. When they asked me if I had a gun and I told them yes, several, they went white. They were visibly afraid — this, even though they were sitting in my comfortable living room, drinking a nice cup of tea with someone whose company they had been enjoying. They had this stereotype of crazy gun-toting Americans, and suddenly that’s all I was to them. It was bizarre. I wasn’t so much offended as I was amused, but still, there it was. When I’ve read some of you on this board talk about how freaked out you would be by the sight of someone displaying a Confederate flag, I think about how off that reaction is. I mean, it’s possible that a white person displaying that flag is a dangerous racist, but chances are they are harmless. But that’s something you’d only really know if you were part of the culture and the community. I’m sure that white people like me see black men displaying certain signs of thug culture in terms of dress and style, and make the same kind of fearful assumptions.
What I struggle with is knowing when “profiling” — racial, gender, sartorial, whatever — is common sense, and when it is unreasonable. Profiling is always prejudicial, in that you are making a judgment without having sufficient knowledge of a person’s individual character. But we cannot all know everything; we have to rely on prejudice to get through the day. What is the difference between commonsense, prudential pre-judgment, and flat-out bigotry? When is it okay to profile, by which I mean when is it morally right, or at least morally tolerable, to notice patterns and make pre-judgments based on them? Why is it right in college admissions and hiring to reduce individuals to their race or gender?
I’m not asking rhetorically. I really would like to hear what you have to say. If the questions make you feel indignant, one way or the other, don’t bother answering. I would like to read a civil discussion, not a display of moral preening or sermonizing from either side.