Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Where you stand depends on where you sit

I'm going to comment on this because it was posted at the TCG:
When I hear about a young black teenager walking home from the store, and the man who assumed he was a criminal before knowing anything about him, I can relate. You may not be able to. Maybe you've never been followed around in a department store by a security guard for no reason. I have. Maybe you've never had a convenient store clerk scream at you to leave, assuming that the blackberry on your hip is a gun that you plan to shoot him with. I have. 
Maybe you've never smiled and greeted people you've passed on the street, only to have them avoid eye contact, clutch their belongings, and quickly walk away. I have. Maybe you've never been pushed against a wall, held at gunpoint, and handcuffed by police (who are supposed to protect you) because you "look like a suspect we were looking for." I have—and I looked nothing like that suspect. All of these incidents are minor and none of them significantly threatened my life. Most, if not all, of my black friends have been through similar situations. And countless others have endured much, much worse. 
If you've never experienced this sort of thing, you may not understand why this case resonates so deeply with us. But when I hear his story, I hear my story. And my father's story. And my son's story. I have no idea what happened after Mr. Zimmerman made assumptions about that young man, but before the altercation, there was nothing extraordinary about the incident. It happens every single day. 
Profiling is real, and it's often racial. Some people think they have the gift of discovering character just by looking at a person. Just like a dark blue uniform and badge means law enforcement, dark skin and a hoodie means lawbreaker. No conversation has happened, but an imaginary rap sheet is attached. Violent character is assumed. They think about the gangster image they saw on TV, or the danger their parents told them about, or the horrible crime they witnessed—and they place all of that baggage on a person they've never even met. We never have the right to draw unwarranted conclusions about a person—even if they do turn out to be troubled 
i) I understand Trip Lee's viewpoint. The problem is, his complaint is so insular and one-sided. Does he think whites are never harassed by the police? Does he think whites are never treated unfairly by the police? What if the policeman is black, Hispanic, or Asian? Should the white driver automatically chalk that up to racial animus? 
ii) Lee accuses Zimmerman of profiling Martin. For all we know, that might well be true. But notice the irony. Lee accuses Zimmerman of stereotyping blacks, while–in the very same breath–Lee is stereotyping Zimmerman. Lee assumes that Zimmerman was racially motivated. But isn't that racial prejudice? Prejudging Zimmerman's motives? 
iii) I once had a coworker who attended one of the predominately black inner city schools in Seattle. He was East-Indian. His family emigrated from Fiji. He was picked on by the black students. I had a Chinese coworker (whose family emigrated from Hong Kong) who attended one of the predominantly black inner city schools in Seattle. He said the Asian students were picked on by the black students. I once talked to the son of a coworker. He was a white Jewish kid who attended one of the predominantly black inner city schools in Seattle. He was picked on by the black students.
Now, you might object that it's unreliable to generalize from anecdotal evidence. I agree. Yet that's precisely what Trip Lee is doing. Appealing to his own personal anecdotes to establish a pattern. So I'm just responding to him on his own level.
iv) What does he mean by "profiling"? We might distinguish between invasive and noninvasive profiling. For instance, there have been times in the past when I walked around Chinatown in Seattle. Likewise, there have been times in the past when I walked around the Central District in Seattle–which is predominantly black. I wouldn't be surprised if more eyes were trained on me there. If you're white in a predominantly black or Asian neighborhood, you stick out. You're noticeable.
Should that bother me? No. For one thing, it's inevitable. No point being upset all the time by something you can't control or change.
In addition, nothing was done to me in those situations. I'm just being watched. Maybe I don't like to be watched. But I'm in a public setting. And it's noninvasive. I'm not being harassed. 
By way of comparison, I believe teenage girls are more likely to shoplift than middle-aged men in business suits. I wouldn't be surprised if stores scrutinize teenage girls more than middle-aged men in business suits. That might be "profiling," but it wouldn't be racial.

And although there's a sense in which it's unfair for all teenage girls to experience heightened scrutiny, it's also unfair to merchants (as well as consumers–who effectively subsidize shoplifters by paying higher prices to defray the expense of theft) to be put in that situation. 

Trip Lee complains about suspicious convenience store clerks. But that's a dangerous job. So naturally they are on edge. All those stories about convenience store clerks who are shot by armed robbers. Lee also skates over the fact that young black men commit crimes of violence at disproportionate rates. 


  1. A very good set of observations, Steve.

    Money quote: Trip accuses Zimmerman of stereotyping blacks, while–in the very same breath–Trip is stereotyping Zimmerman.

  2. Who is Lee Trip?