The incident in Ferguson, and all the news programs that are picking sides and hypothesizing about what happened has brought racism to the forefront of my mind.
Racism is trickier now than it’s ever been, particularly when it comes to black and white. It was much clearer 40 or 50 years ago. The bad guys wore hoods, burned crosses, torched homes and showed obvious signs of hatred based on nothing else but skin color. But in 2014, racism can be very subtle.
Let me give you an example. I lived in the US Virgin Islands for 7 years. The demographics were roughly 90% black and 10% white. I was heading for Kmart (the only big box store on island at the time) to pick up some household goods. I had heard from friends and neighbors that the customer service sucked there if you were white.
I could feel the disdain the moment I walked in the store. No one would make eye contact with me. If I asked if they had a certain item, the answer was always “no” with no further explanation or suggestion. If I asked where something was, they’d gesture with their hand in no particular direction without even looking up. They were worse than the folks at the DMV and that’s saying something! I felt uncomfortable.
It seemed pretty obvious to me that my friends were right and that I was being treated differently because I was white. I decided to verify this in my “oh, not so scientific way”. While golfing I asked some of my black teammates what they thought of the customer service at Kmart. What was their experience? I heard things like “Terrible!”, “Awful”, “Worst anywhere on island” and “I never go there unless I have to.”
So how can you tell if a person is treating you badly because of your skin color or if they’re just having a bad day? If I had not talked to my black friends, I would have continued believing my skin color was the reason for the disrespectful treatment. I would have started looking for evidence of racism every time I entered the store. (We always find evidence to support our beliefs.) I would have told my white friends about my experiences, hence perpetuating an untruth.
I am certain there are racists.
I am certain there are rude jerks.
I just don’t know how to tell them apart.
And this brings up another subject with some ambiguity. Is profiling a subset of racism? We regularly see on the news young black men charged with a violent crime, rich white men indicted for corruption and middle-eastern men accused of terrorism. Obviously not all young black men are thugs, not all rich men are unethical scoundrels, and not all middle-eastern men are on suicide missions. The problem is we can’t tell the good from the bad. It’s not obvious.
Profiling is Part of Human Nature When Scared
I think it is human-nature to profile when our safety is at stake. Sometimes we only have a split second to decide if someone is friend or foe. We look for clues; drunk or sober, calm or excited, quiet or loud, acting sane or crazy, dressed tidy or sloppy, same tribe as me, or other. Paying attention to such details has served us well throughout history.
For example, I had gotten lost in a poor black neighborhood one time and my friends asked if I was scared. I said “no, it was the middle of the day and all I saw was women”. (Does this mean I’m a sexist?) If I’m in a dark alley (Why is it always a dark alley?) and three young men are walking towards me, I’m on much higher alert than I would be if the guys were in their 60s. (I’m an ageist too?)
I’m not sure what I am, but I know I’m a profiler.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of good and decent young black men, rich white guys and middle-eastern men have to deal with people’s unfounded suspicions everywhere they go. I’m extremely grateful there hasn’t been a slew of murders committed in grocery stores by tall, middle-aged blond women. Otherwise I’d have to deal with people’s scrutiny and suspicion while innocently mulling over the fiber content of breakfast cereals.
We can’t change the unfairness of inaccurate profiling done by citizens, but we try to do so with those employed by our legal system. Everyone knows how ridiculous it is to frisk grandma in the security line at the airport, but in the name of fairness and political correctness, the TSA pats down little old ladies.
As we go about our lives we may single out certain people as threats and see the usefulness of it for our safety. But we don’t want the police, who are routinely in life or death situations, to do the same. Is that fair? I don’t know. As my Momma use to say “life isn’t fair.”