Thursday, July 25, 2013

Profiling And Prejudice

We hear a lot about profiling these days.   Not so much about prejudice anymore.  Some say that prejudice is a thing of the past in our “post racial” world.  My own feelings are well known:  post racial my bony old white ass. 

Prejudice is “pre-judgment,” and that is what is at the heart of all profiling, isn’t it?  And profiling is still with us, big time.   Whether the official profiling that is found in the “stop-and-frisk” policies of many big cities, or the more personal style exercised by the various vigilantes in the news, profiling is experiencing some kind of Golden Age. 

Mostly, this is a bad thing, but prejudice is often a necessary and valuable life strategy.  Take snakes, for instance.  How many of us have the talent and experience that would be required to judge them all as individuals?  It’s best to treat them all as though they were poisonous, to pre-judge them all as dangerous creatures.  It’s not so easy when it comes to people. 

Black Prejudice Against Whites

This one is like the snakes, I think.  It might be fair to assume that the worst could be true.   American blacks, after all, were transported to America against their wills by white people; they have been tormented, oppressed and discriminated against to one extent or another for hundreds of years without a break, again by white people.  Not only insult, but also injury, torture and even death were involved, “are” in fact, involved.

So who can blame blacks who choose to approach any encounter with a white person as dangerous?  Not me.  I am just thankful that most American blacks are graceful and dignified about it all, tempering this reality-based prejudice with a generous spirit.  I would say that for most of the black Americans who feel this particular prejudice it is seen as a “rebuttable presumption.”  The white stranger may initially suffer from the prejudice, but most blacks will immediately begin a search for evidence upon which to base a more particularized judgment.  This is a kindness, and I always appreciate it. 

I have watched this process many times, first hand.  I drove cabs in the early ‘70’s in New York.  Late one summer afternoon/evening I got lost in Harlem.  I found myself on a dead-end street, all of the buildings were run down, abandoned and boarded up.  The only people around were a group of black teenagers, eighteen to twenty years old I’d say, sitting on a stoop.  I stopped to ask directions. 

They immediately judged me, they profiled me based on the color of my skin.  I had pulled over to the curb and rolled the passenger side window down, but before I could say anything they were all in my face.  “What the fuck do you want?”  “What, you think we’re all dealers?”  Like that, they assumed that I wanted to buy drugs. 

“No man,” I said, “I’m just lost!  Which one of these streets goes up the hill?”  (I was trying to get up to Washington Heights, to upper Broadway.)  They all relaxed and became friendly immediately.  No apologies were offered, but some of them smiled and talked to me and others began to discuss the best way to accomplish my goal.  I got my directions, thanked them, and moved off.  A presumption had been rebutted, quickly and gracefully. 

White Prejudice Against Blacks

This one is much more problematic.  It lacks the basis in reality of the prejudice in the other direction.  Mostly, it is based on fear, misinformation and outright lies.  And don’t forget statistics!  Some prejudiced whites never tire of bringing up crime statistics to justify their obvious distaste for blacks.  It is always valuable to recall the words of old Ben Disraeli, one of the more memorable prime ministers of England, who said that there were three types of lies:  lies; damned lies; and statistics.

White people are not as quick to look for evidence that the presumption may be, in individual cases, mistaken.   Somehow they are more content to remain with the generalization, which they seem to find comforting. 

White Prejudice Against Whites, Or Anybody For That Matter

Lots of white people are so paranoid that they don’t trust anybody at all. 

I am reminded of the shops on Madison Avenue.  In the streets numbered in the thirties and forties there were lots of small shops featuring a mixed bag of vintage goods.  “Used,” you could call the stuff.  Ear-rings, watches, clothing, jewelry from costume to real.  Quite affordable, some of it, I bought a couple of things there in the ‘60’s.  By the early ‘70’s, all of these stores were profiling customers. 

Every single one of those stores now sported a sign on the locked door that said, “Out To Lunch,” or maybe “Back In 20 Minutes.”  There was now a door bell on all of them too.  They were in there, the shop people, but they would only open the door for a man/woman couple, or a woman, or a group of women.  I’m sure that there were race-based criteria too, but I have no information about that.  If I rang the bell, however, someone would just smile and point to the sign.  No single men, or pair of men, were admitted. 

Like the snakes, I could be harmless or I could be life-threatening.  I could be a legitimate customer, or I could be some kind of pistol-packing junkie overdue for a cloud nine experience.  Better to be safe, even if you lose some business.  Profiling is like that. 

Moral: It’s All Bullshit

Let’s face it, we all pre-judge people and things, all the time.  Some people’s experience and temperament may lead the behavior to be reinforced.  My own temperament led me to see that the pre-judgments were so often wrong that the entire enterprise was useless. 

Back to my cab driving days, there was one occasion where I was absolutely sure that I was going to get robbed.  It was almost two a.m., I was driving back to the garage on Northern Boulevard in Queens.  I was stopped at a light, and a twenty-something Porto Rican guy came out of the dark entrance to a closed shop and quickly climbed into the car.  He spoke in a low voice, kept his face in the shadows, and gave me an address that I knew was on a dead-end street of mostly factories.  I considered driving to the Elmhurst police station, but I figured no use getting shot for nothing, see how it plays out and just give him the money if he wants it.  We got where we were going.

All of a sudden, the guy comes to life.  “Thanks for picking me up!”  He was sure that at that hour he’d end up walking.  He’d snuck into the car because he was sure that any taxi driver would be profiling him and passing him up, maybe a couple of them already had.  He gave me a big tip, even. 

That did it for me, after that I have tried never to pre-judge.  I’m on the “let’s see how it plays out” program, and it works okay for me.   

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