Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rational Vs. Irrational Discrimination

This week's edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet really was chock full of commentaries on racism (all from the predictable point of view), so I thought I'd continue with the same theme today.

The Daily Planet published an opinion piece by Cecil Brown entitled "Racial Profiling and Swimming While Black." I encourage you to read it, but the gist of it is that Brown, a Black UC Berkeley professor, was hassled by the police at the UC swimming pool apparently because some other Black guy had earlier caused trouble at the pool.

Someone called the cops mistakenly thinking Prof. Brown was the troublemaker. This was obviously very embarrassing and troubling for the Prof. Brown.

Prof. Brown then decided the police were racists who hated Black people, so he wrote a rap song about the experience.

Now I'd like to tell you a story from my own past. I'm white.

When I was about 20 years old, I was in my home town, back from college for spring break or some such, and I decided to drive with two friends down to the bowling alley. I was your typical college kid -- ratty looking hair, ratty looking car, ratty looking clothes.

On the way, I was driving a little too fast and a police officer pulled me over. This was on a major street in a small town, so there were lots of onlookers.

The cop came to the window and asked for my license, registration and insurance. I reached over to the glove box to get the latter two items.

When I opened the glove box, I realized there was a problem. You see, this car wasn't so hot, and I found myself needing often to adjust the idle screw, which was located in a sort of well in the engine. The only way you could turn it was with a thin metal object, like a long screwdriver.

But being the stupid college kid I was, I used to use a long, sharp knife to do the job. Don't ask me why -- I just did. And, I kept that knife in the glove compartment.

The officer saw the knife. He then drew his gun, ordered me out of the car and forced me and my passengers (both white men) to lie face down on the pavement for about 15 minutes. A small crowd gathered and watched as that officer and one other searched our car.

Though they found nothing, the officers hassled us for another 15 minutes, more or less telling us to watch our backs. They confiscated the knife, wrote me a ticket and drove off. The entire ordeal was humiliating, and there's no doubt that many of the onlookers wrongly concluded that we were criminals or miscreants of some sort.

Now, I am 100 percent certain that a big part of how those officers reacted was because the car was full of young males who looked ratty. If you think about it, this is very common. Young men frequently receive more "attention" from the police than anyone else.

Had I instead been a 60-year-old Asian woman, I'm sure the reaction would have been quite different. The cop might have been surprised to see the knife, and he might have told me not to touch it. But he would not have put me on the ground and searched my car like that.

Following Prof. Brown's logic, I guess I should have conclude that police are anti-youth sexists. For some reason, they just hate young men and have it in for them.

But you see, that's not what's really going on there. What's really going on is the police officer knows that young men commit disproportionately more crimes than middle-aged women. So, he stereotyped me based on his experience and acted accordingly.

Should I be mad at the police officer for doing this?

Of course not. I should be mad at all the other young men running around committing crimes and attacking police officers. If they stopped doing that, I would not have been treated as I was.

The same thing applies in Prof. Brown's case. First off, he obviously matched the description of the person who was causing problems at the swimming pool. This is regrettable, frustrating and humiliating, but it is not racism.

And, I feel pretty confident that when the cops entered that area, they were not particularly excited about having to hassle Prof. Brown, specifically because they knew going in that they would be accused of racism, whether the man they hassled was the suspect or not.

Beyond the specific matter of Prof. Brown matching a description, there is this question of racial profiling.

Just as my police officer knew I posed more of a threat to him than a middle-aged woman, police know that Blacks are more likely to hurt them than whites. If you consider this unjustifiable bias, then you also must consider it sexist for a cop to be more careful around men than women. And it's "ageist" to worry more about the young than the old.

In truth, when someone in Prof. Brown's situation faces a cop who seems to be taking unnecessary precautions, he should not blame the cop. He should blame the other people who look like him who have forced the cop to behave like that.

There are obviously limits to how far one can and should advance this argument. All are entitled to due process of law, and the police should not stray from police procedure.

But, like all things in human affairs, police procedure prescribes a range of actions the cop can take in a given situation, and it is not unreasonable for the cop to move toward the "safer" end of that range when dealing with a person who -- by appearances alone -- the cop knows is more likely to pose a threat.

I have one other thing to say on this matter. I think people who make arguments like the one advanced by Prof. Brown are part of the problem, not the solution. The more people demand the police ignore bad behavior, the less social pressure is put on those who perpetrate the bad behavior.

If people like Prof. Brown instead stood up and directed their ire toward those whose bad behavior pushes the police to behave as they do, perhaps that bad behavior would become increasingly taboo. Shunning and shame can work wonders in a culture.


  1. Most people, whether they realize it or not, engage a kind hierarchy of fear, which you alluded to in your post. The idea that a cop would not is absurd. Who gives the cops in the east bay the most hassle? Who is the most involved in violent criminal behavior? Who will do the most God-awful whining about being profiled? Who continually refuses to wipe their own asses?

  2. He sure is a novelist.

    If you put in anybody a White, Asian, Hispanic where Brown puts himself anybody would find themselves humiliated. And I think the cops reaction to anybody with a PhD would be the same, a feeling of the cops intellectual inferiority but superior power in the moment. Furthermore, Brown infers a lot that may or may not be there- does he have a PhD in mind reading or is it because of his PhD that he is clairvoyant gee what cop wouldn't want to hassle this guy?

    finally his complaint that the cops won't tell him who tattled on him is not surprising at all- why should they? They nor the pool workers have any obligation to tell him squat. The wrong thing is that allegedly a policeman warned him away from the pool- we never heard the cop say that but that is his allegation- if the cop did that he was wrong, but we don't know if that was part of the novelists' liberty.

    And can Brown see the same when he walks into an all black club or all black part of town and is accepted and a white guy walks in and gets stared down. Or when blacks call each other nigger but if a white guy says that it's racist, oh really Mr. Brown?

  3. Looks like the Berkeley Daily Planet is slowly folding up its tent- now no more box distribution. I do hope you liberals give generously- they now ask a $2 donation per copy. but I've found liberals to be very cheap when it comes to paying out of their own pockets.
    fold Becky fold.