Friday, March 30, 2012

Racial Profiling is Legal-Consequence Stereotyping

Recently, a friend of mine pointed out that the family of Treyvon Martin is quick to steer discussions of generalized racism in the shooting towards the more specific charge of racial profiling: and rightly so. The family and friends of George Zimmerman are quick to point out that he is a multicultural man of diverse ethnic heritage with family members of African heritage who in the eyes of many is in fact not white. I would say in both cases, rightly so: and it is important for us to keep in mind that it is not necessary to be white to racially profile African American youth. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the security guards that followed my darker skinned cousins and my brother around were sometimes black. Even a black police officer or security guard might racially profile. Your educated and enlightened souls are quick to label these types as self-loathing black men, and even to label Zimmerman as a self-loathing Latino wannabe cop.

These suspicious looking delinquents were tossed out of school for truancy and suspected drug use.
And in all that, the key is the last word in the sentence: cop. The thing that distinguishes racial profiling from other types of racism and other types of stereotyping is that racial profiling is something done by a person who is in some sort of position of authority with regards to the legal or criminal justice system.

And I bring this up due to the use of the word profiling here:The ACLU defines it as such:

"Racial Profiling" refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.

In order to be profiling, law enforcement (or civilian branches of enforcement such as security guards) are involved. I feel that the term Racial Profiling is being used accurately here, in that: George Zimmerman repeatedly elevated his role as Neighborhood Watch captain to one of law enforcement; he repeatedly called law enforcement and conducted himself as though he were the self-appointed civilian branch of said enforcement within his gated community: in effect, he conducted himself as an armed security guard, going beyond the Neighborhood Watch method of watching and reporting. He had a gun; he drove around with his gun, following and confronting young (and reportedly, young black) men who were in the community, including Trayvon who was legitimately on the way to the home of family with whom he was staying. Zimmerman *may have* had stereotypical notions of young black men, in theory, before deciding to act as though he were the law; and these would remain stereotypes until such a time as he took it upon himself to act as an enforcement officer, and an armed one nonetheless. 

At this point we move away from ordinary stereotyping and into the realm of profiling.

There is stereotyping generally; and racial profiling as an extremely dangerous variant on stereotyping. In fact, it is a type of stereotyping, but stereotyping sometimes relatively benign. Here are some examples of stereotypes that are unlikely to lead to your death: "Women are cleaner than men" is a stereotype. "I don't want a male room mate because guys are messy" is a prejudice (and racism is a type of prejudice). To be something close to the situation involved with racial profiling and George Zimmerman, you'd have to have some armed neighborhood watch chick following guys through the neighborhood because they "look suspicious."

But if the "Stand Your Ground" laws were being used this way, I bet they'd be off the books quick, fast and in a hurry. Can you imagine it? "I felt threatened, Officer. Yes, I followed him. He looked like a rapist." 

The difference between stereotyping and profiling is that profiling is more likely to be a life threatening or life and death type of situation. Profiling is a stereotypical assumption, so by definition, it is stereotyping of a sort: but profiling as in 'racial profiling' is something done by people in authority to civilians. What is so extremely troubling to many of us is the fact that laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law put guns and authority in the hands of civilians who are not even trained to resist the urge to stereotype in a life-or-death situation. It's bad enough that trained law enforcement act out bigoted assumptions, but now you have a law that makes it okay for the nosy, paranoid neighbor who spends all day staring out the window looking for the "bad people" and the glorified hall monitor on your local Neighborhood Watch the authority to recklessly act out all of his or her Batman and Punisher comic book fantasies. 

And that is a bad thing... a very bad thing.

It is a bad thing because we are taught from a very early age that the Bad Guys are recognizable, and look a certain way. Fiction - the kind of thing that I write - tells us this. The movies, the books, even the fairy tales and cartoons tell us "this looks scary" and "that is threatening." If we went by our own INSTINCTIVE FEAR, we would many of us be a lot like the murderer in The Telltale Heart, who kills a man just because he doesn't like his dead "vulture" looking blind eye. What we believe is dangerous, isn't what we actually need to fear. 

That's why people never suspect your Ted Bundy types.

Added to that: the single largest demographic indicator of a tendency towards violent crime is one no one is ever going to touch in a million years. When seemingly liberal people in the not-so-liberal 90s used to use the "but young black men are scary" argument I used to bring it up: but no one really can deal with it: men are 10 times more likely to commit murder than women, 10 times. That's a huge difference. So I go back to my earlier statement: if you had hordes of armed women running around using that statistic to profile the entire male gender as potentially dangerous, these kinds of laws would be overturned in a second. 

But that would never happen.

The laws themselves are based upon people like Zimmerman believing they are "protecting" someone and denying that someone may need to be protected against them.

Further... and more to the point, it's bad enough when trained law enforcement officers who have gone through years of preparation racially profile. Putting guns in the hands of civilians and allowing them - us - with our limited understanding of complex relationships between law enforcement and civil liberties - and allowing us to prowl the streets looking for trouble like Zimmerman did is sheer madness.

The legal system is bad enough - but at least with it - there is a system of checks and balances, one that needs to remain, not deteriorate into this sort of tragedy occurring on what could become a regular basis.

Put an end to these insane laws. Before it's too late.

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