We're All Racial Profilers

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Why do episodes of police violence that touch off conflagrations like the one in Cincinnati all seem so depressingly similar? Let's take a little quiz: a black a) homeless woman b) street vendor or c) teenager, armed with a) a screwdriver b) a wallet or c) nothing at all, is killed by cops under circumstances that are a) questionable b) grounds for murder charges or c) the cause of a riot.

All of the above. Margaret Mitchell, a homeless mentally ill black woman, was shot by Los Angeles patrolmen in 1998 after she allegedly lunged at them with a screwdriver. Amadou Diallo was the African street vendor at whom four of New York's finest fired 41 shots after they supposedly mistook his wallet for a gun. (The officers were acquitted of murder.) And Timothy Thomas was the unarmed Cincinnati youth whose fatal shooting by police ignited last week's uprising.

What these cases--and scores of similar ones across the nation--have in common is that the victims did nothing to justify the use of deadly force. Their real crime seems to have been being black in the presence of a cop. That's why I, like many African-American parents, taught my three sons survival tactics that are the mirror image of the racial profiling used by the police. In our version, every white cop is to be considered dangerous and treated accordingly. In cities like New York and Chicago, some blacks are so scared of cops that they hold classes to teach their kids how not to provoke them.

That means no back talk if a cop pulls you over. Looking straight ahead and keeping your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them. Asking permission before you reach for your driver's license. And never, ever running away the way Timothy Thomas did, even if you're completely innocent. It's better to be arrested and spend the night in jail than to catch a bullet fleeing arrest.

As terrible as racial profiling is, it can't be abolished as easily as critics like Al Sharpton seem to think. The sad truth is that racist cops are not the only ones who think that young black men are suspect, especially when they're dressed in a certain way and exude a certain attitude. Black cops believe it. Jesse Jackson--who once confessed that he felt relieved when the young man coming up behind him on a dark street in Washington turned out to be Caucasian--believes it. And so do I. Given the large number of violent crimes committed by young black men, it would be crazy not to.

That's one of the issues Attorney General John Ashcroft will have to deal with as he implements President Bush's order to eliminate racial profiling. The solution may lie in making distinctions between the behavior of average citizens, following our hunches as we walk the mean streets, and the conduct of police officers. It's one thing to cross to the other side of the street out of fear of being mugged. It's another for state troopers in New Jersey to pull over black motorists far more frequently than they pull over white motorists in the mistaken belief that blacks are more likely to be carrying illegal drugs. That's not just racist, it's lousy police work. And it's fuel for the black rage that makes outbursts like the one in Cincinnati inevitable.