Racial profiling has been a controversial issue in the United States for some time now, but recently it became even more controversial. In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict President Obama made surprise appearance at a press conference to offer his perspective on the issue of racial profiling. His comments can be summarized as follows: black men are subjected to racial profiling on a regular basis, and white people need to do some soul searching to determine if their self-protective reactions to black men grow out of racism.
The President told how white women have been known to clutch their purses protectively to their chests when a black man steps into the elevator with them. He also claimed that white people are prone to lock the doors of their cars when a black man walks by. The president then revealed that prior to becoming a U.S. Senator he had been subjected to racial profiling himself. The obvious implication in his comments was that white people go into self-protection mode around black men because they—the white people—are racists.
Let me acknowledge from the outset that racial profiling is a common enough practice in the United States. Let me also acknowledge that some people who practice racial profiling are racists, and not all of them are white. In fact, people of all races practice their own forms of racial profiling, but this fact is grist for another column. In this column I focus solely on the prevailing argument that white people who practice racial profiling should automatically be considered racists. This assumption raises some obvious questions: Do people really profile all black men or just those who exhibit a certain demeanor? Could there be other reasons for racial profiling—reasons that are not driven by racism? Are white people to blame when they feel threatened by black men?
To answer the first question, I talked with a number of white people—male and female—who were willing to acknowledge they sometimes felt threatened by black men. However, what quickly became apparent in these discussions is that my subjects did not feel threatened by all black men or even black men in general, just by some black men. The black men that caused them to feel threatened fit a certain profile: baggy pants, hoodies, tats, and an attitude. Further discussion revealed that it wasn’t the skin color so much as the demeanor that caused these white people to shrink away from black men. In fact, those I interviewed said they would feel just as threatened by men of any race who exhibited the same demeanor. In an interesting twist, I asked two black friends about this issue and they claimed to feel just as threatened by black men sporting baggy pants, hoodies, tats, and an attitude as my white subjects.
To answer the second question, one need only resort to elementary logic. Many people—white, Hispanic, Asian, and black—go into self-protection mode around black men of a certain demeanor because experience has taught them that is the rational course of action. That experience might have come first hand or it might have come from watching the nightly news or reading the morning newspaper. In any case, the mainstream media that decries racial profiling as an outgrowth of racism is complicit in that it conditions people to assume that black men of a certain demeanor are automatically criminals. Watch the nightly news, read your morning newspaper, or go to a movie and it will not be long before you are conditioned to think that all black men sporting baggy pants, hoodies, tats, and an attitude are up to no good. Although it is unfortunate it is true that the media—intentionally or unintentionally—stereotypes black men in their reporting about them and in their portrayal of them. Consequently, people are conditioned to feel threatened by black men.
The third and final question has to do with whether white people are to blame for the practice of racial profiling. To research this contention, I sat down with one of my oldest and dearest friends: a college professor and part-time minister who happens to be black. Like president Obama he has been followed when shopping in a department store. He has also been subjected to the unwarranted assumption that he got his position as a college professor only because of his race. In short, he knows first-hand how debilitating and frustrating it can be to be unfairly profiled. But he has a different take than most on who is to blame for the practice. After acknowledging that racial profiling is sometimes the result of racism, he explained that more often than not it is a reaction of people to their experience.
My friend explained that he does not blame those whose experience causes them to feel threatened by black men. Rather, he blames the black men whose actions create the negative perception. When people become accustomed to seeing black men behaving in destructive ways such as dealing drugs, committing home invasions, robbing convenience stores, fathering children out of wedlock and leaving them, hanging out at times when other people are working, listening to rap music that is violent in nature and demeaning to women, dropping out of school, and intimidating voters, they can be forgiven for feeling threatened by them. They would be less than rational beings to react in any other way.
President Obama’s plea for Americans to do some serious soul searching concerning what drives the practice of racial profiling is a reasonable request. But it would have more credibility if he would broaden his request to include black men who need to ask themselves why so many Americans—rightly or wrongly—feel threatened by them.