Friday, July 31, 2009

So, what is racial profiling?

I watched this Youtube video this morning, featuring Lucia Whalen, the woman in Cambridge, Mass. who phoned the police to report a suspected break-in at Prof. Gates's home.

I must say, I find this video disturbing. Whalen's valid point is that she did NOT state that the men breaking into Gates's house were black. She couldn't tell their race. She did speculate that one might be Hispanic.

When a person calls the police to report a crime, or describes a criminal suspect to police, one of the first questions that is asked is, "Did you see the race of the suspect?" Race is a distinguishing feature. It's helpful to police, because it allows them to eliminate anyone NOT of that race, in their search. Likewise, if the suspect is described as a woman, the police can then eliminate all males from their search. All descriptions are helpful.

So, was it wrong for the Cambridge police to ask the races of the two men who appeared to be breaking into Gates's house? No.

What if -- WHAT IF -- Whalen had gotten a better look, been standing closer to the house, or if one of the men had turned differently. What if -- WHAT IF -- she had been able to say reasonably that she did think that the men were black?

Would that have been racial profiling?

Because, you see, in the video, she is so adamant to say that she never referred to race. As if describing anyone by race is AUTOMATICALLY racial profiling! That seems to be her implication. If you need to call the police, and are asked to describe a suspected criminal in your neighborhood, will you be hesitant to describe race? Will Americans be more hesitant to use race as a descriptive factor, after this news event in Cambridge?

I'm afraid we're moving in that direction. I'm afraid that anytime a person describes race, he'll be accused of racism, when what he's actually doing is just describing a person: short or tall, male or female, bearded or shaven, black or white.

Profiling occurs when assumptions are made, and acted on, that are derogatory to the person and his whole race. If Whalen, or anyone, thinks, "There's someone breaking into a house. He must be black. Only black people do that. I can make that assumption. I'll tell the police," then that's profiling. But noticing a person's race, and describing that race, is not profiling. That's just giving an accurate description.

Whalen didn't say more than she should have. She did a pretty good job. A perfect job would have been not to mention that one of the men looked Hispanic, when she says she couldn't really tell at all. Are all Hispanics up in arms? I don't hear them! Know why? Because our Hispanic community in America is not nearly so vocal, powerful, or visible, as our black community. Was Whalen profiling Hispanics? Boy, I hope not!

Just a little more damage that this situation has done to all of America, and to law enforcement particularly.

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