A Washington D.C. police department official recently encouraged residents to report “suspicious looking people” to police when they see them in their neighborhood. He went on to say, “This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown .” In effect, he was encouraging a practice called racial profiling.
If by unusual we mean rare, black people are unusual in Carroll County and in Westminster 's TownMall. So are people wearing dreadlocks, turbans, or hijabs (the head scarves worn by some Muslim women).
Kevin Meeks, author of Driving While Black: What to Do If You Are a Victim of Racial Profiling , recounts what happened when he cut off his dreadlocks. Suddenly, the world was very different. As a newspaper reporter covering conferences and other newsworthy events, he was often stopped and asked for credentials when he had dreadlocks. Now that they are cut off, he walks right in.
Racial profiling that has received considerable public attention in recent years. In spite of their fame and wealth, black men such as Christopher Darden, Danny Glover, and Darius Rucker (lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish), have all shared personal stories of their numerous encounters with profiling. Rucker, who tours with other white singers in his group, recounts how he is often the only one who is stopped by security in airports or when performing at places such as the White House.
Meeks discusses the difficulty of trying to flag down a taxi cab “while black” or even “jogging while black.” According to Meeks, black men jogging may be stopped by police who want to know why they are running so fast.
Studies have shown that in some locales, police are more apt to target some drivers because of their race. There are even courses that deal with what black men should and should not do when they are pulled over and interrogated by police.
In our post-9/11 world, the profiling of people we assume to be Arab Americans and/or Muslims is rising sharply. Whites are profiled as well. Perhaps some of us jump to assumptions when we see a white person riding a Harley or driving a pick-up truck with a gun rack. Do we target that person as a bigot, or perhaps lower-class? Or what might we be thinking as we walk by a white youngster who is wearing baggy pants and whose body is adorned with tattoos?
Some people argue that racial or ethnic profiling, the singling out of people on the basis of their race or cultural background, is sometimes justified on the grounds that Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, or members of some other group are more apt to commit a particular crime. Whether or not we think the ends justify the means, the means reflect bias. Why? Because we are judging an entire group because of the actions of a few people within that group.
SWB (“Shopping While Black” or “Shopping While Brown”) are terms used to describe how people feel when they are profiled while they shop. Recently, racial profiling has been in the local news. A shopper with his son at the TownMall in Westminster claims he was wrongly accused of shoplifting. According to these two shoppers, the mall employees who accused them of this crime admitted making a mistake, but rationalized what they did by saying black people have been “stealing things.”
What happens when white people are caught stealing things? Are they profiled by security at the TownMall? I hope not, but as a white male living in Carroll County , I don't think I have much to worry about since my appearance is not that unusual. If profiled, I imagine I would be livid, having police, security, and storeowners treat me like I was a potential thief even though I am law-abiding and work long and hard for what I have.
In past years, I have talked to Carroll County middle-school children about diversity. As part of my presentation, I show them a video clip that features a pair of young males walking through a shopping mall. The high-school aged youths, one black and one white, wear similar clothes and engage in similar real-life experiences in small towns in Connecticut and New Jersey . By focusing a camera on how store personnel and other members of the community deal with these two “testers,” the producers of this video uncover the pervasiveness of racial profiling.
Sometimes, students write to me later. One wrote, “It was sad to see that when the black guy was walking down the mall, people started grabbing their jewelry because they thought he was going to steal it. When the white guy did the same thing, people just ignored him.”
A white student commented about his experiences at the TownMall. “After school, my friends and I went to the mall. We all had our backpacks and that day my clothes were baggy. I felt so uncomfortable because in many of the stores the people watched me. They assumed that because of my appearance I was going to steal; when in fact, stealing never once crossed my mind. Now I know what it is like to be stereotyped, and I know now that it is one of the worst feelings in the world.”
Lastly, I distinctly remember the comments of one black student. She wrote, “Thank you for coming to our class to teach diversity. I'm sure that most of my classmates learned a lot, although I did not. It's not because you taught bad, it's because I know a lot about prejudice. I experience many forms of prejudice, such as being followed in stores. Thank you for showing the video; it proves that prejudice does exist.”
How many of us have engaged in our own form of profiling, that is, assuming certain things about someone because of their race, gender, religion, social class, or manner of dress? And how many of us have been wrongly accused of something because of our appearance?
Profiling is nothing new in Carroll County or in any other region in Maryland or the United States . When the Baltimore Ravens opened their training camp in Westminster in the mid-1990s, Baltimore Colt Hall of Fame Running Back Lenny Moore, reflected back on the Westminster of the 1950's. As a black athlete, Moore talked about how his experiences were so different than those of his white teammates. Moore vividly remembers another black teammate, Raymond Berry, speaking out against this double standard. At practice, people would cozy up to the black players with the hope of getting a picture and an autograph. But people's demeanor changed when they went into town, according to Moore .
Fast forward to the present, and listen to the thoughts of a black male who is a resident of Baltimore City . “I am viewed as someone to be feared and avoided. Stereotypes typically portray me as someone not to be trusted, prone to violence, irresponsible, and unwilling to commit to any long-term relationship related to marriage and family. Being a Black man living in this society, the perception is that I am a predator feeding on weaker people.”
What diversity training exists for employees at the TownMall or in other malls and stores in Carroll County ? While it is wishful thinking that we can eliminate bias through diversity training, maybe employees can be taught to manage their biases. Given the increasing multiracial and multicultural customer base in Carroll County, we cannot afford to alienate customers, lose business, and cultivate a less than positive image of Carroll County.
If you experience profiling, fine tuning your anger requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline and control. And yet that is exactly what Meeks suggests you do. If you decide to take action, remember names and who said what. Put your thoughts down in writing. Explain why you think your rights were violated and request a specific remedy. Then put this information in letter form and send to the Department of Justice, the Better Business Bureau, a local elected official, or some other authority figure whom you feel you can trust.
Or if that does not work you can always do what a friend of mine does. “In many areas, when I walk into some store, the guards watch me as if I was a sick puppy. When I take a step, the guard takes two. I do not appreciate this; I feel they are treating me as if I want to ‘rob them blind.' When this happens to me, I get extremely angry. So, I gather a lot of items as if I am going to make a purchase, pull out my money and credit cards, wait for them to ring everything up on the register, and then say that's okay, I don't want it.”