Viewpoint: How We're All Victims of Racial Profiling

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If I’m walking down the sidewalk alone and notice a couple of young black guys heading in my direction, I intentionally do not cross the street. I don’t clutch my bag a little tighter, or keep a hand on the rape whistle on my keychain. I want them to know that I’m not afraid of them. Or, more to the point, that they’re not universally feared.

I don’t expect the young men to notice that I don’t stiffen up. But I know they would notice if I did, because I have two younger brothers, aged 19 and 25. Their honey-colored skin, a few shades lighter than mine, and Asian eyes don’t prevent random strangers from viewing them simply as Young Black Men — which they are by about half — and, therefore, potentially dangerous, which they definitely are not. And surely their non-physical traits, like being highly educated and classically trained musicians, get lost amidst the ski jackets and low-riding pants my youngest brother in particular favors. The same is true of countless black men and boys, whose fashion choices, large headphones and, yes, skin color might seem to some to belie the true nature of their personalities.

It may seem foolish, or patronizing, of me. But people conduct this kind of internal dialogue all the time; it’s practically unavoidable in our multi-ethnic, politically correct society, where stereotypes and reality collide more often than people would like to think, or admit. While I want to believe that my motivation is benevolent, I recognize the irony of trying to offset racial profiling by engaging in what amounts to just another form of it.

There’s a fine line between trying to counteract the blanket suspicion of others and trying to assuage your own prejudiced tendencies. Sandra Bullock put it worst in the movie Crash: “I just had a gun pointed in my face and it was my fault because I knew it was gonna happen,” her character says after getting carjacked by two young black guys. “But if a white person sees two black men walking towards her and she turns and walks away, she's a racist, right? Well I got scared and I didn't do anything and ten seconds later I had a gun in my face.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that makes black people outwardly enraged — while inwardly we cringe about the very real harm it has on our community. Members of every minority group, after all, are fully aware of how the greater society views them. But it's not just that they are personally offended by such bigotry — it's also pragmatism. The way you are perceived—by parents, teachers and, yes, random strangers—affects the person you become and how far you go in life.

According to a front-page article in last week's New York Times, young black men aren't only worse off than whites, Latinos and black women, but they're also worse off than they were just a few years ago. More than a fifth of black males in their 20s who did not go to college were incarcerated in 2004, up from 16 percent in 1995. Black males without a high school diploma—and they account for more than half of all black men —were in 2004 more than twice as likely as white males without a high school diploma to be jobless (72 and 34 percent, respectively).

These numbers tread depressingly familiar territory, though it is a surprise that the bad news seems to be getting worse. Just as troubling is the fact that profiling of young black men isn’t merely detrimental to the black community, but to the economy as a whole. As these disturbing statistics get worse, they act as more and more of a drain on precious government resources—from welfare and Medicaid to unemployment payments.

Though it may not be all that shocking to hear that employers are reluctant to hire people who’ve served time, there's a lesser-known side of the tragedy: it turns out that the mere existence of those black men who’ve gone to prison can also ruin the job prospects of black men without criminal records, according to several studies conducted by Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer and several colleagues.

Holzer asked employers of low-skilled jobs whether they would hire someone who’d been to prison and whether they conduct background checks on applicants to find out. The answers were a bit surprising—especially for prisoner advocates who have come out against background checks. Employers who said they conducted such checks were, in fact, more likely to hire black males overall than those who didn’t bother.

Without these checks, Holzer told me, "employers might still be wondering whether black guys that didn't say they have criminal records might simply not be reporting it." Translation: Employers without the time or inclination to discern whether job applicants are criminals err on the “safe” side and assume that all young black applicants are criminals—or at least incompetent. No wonder unemployment is sky-high in urban areas.

This statistical discrimination is the same instinct that leads women to clutch their purses at the glimpse of a dark young man down the block. And it’s understandable, to a degree. But I can only imagine the emotional—and yes, economic—toll it takes on this entire swath of young men.

An Asian friend of mine recently commented, delicately, on a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude he often senses from black men. This could be construed as a racist remark; surely, tons of white guys have chips on their shoulders. But that doesn’t necessarily make my friend’s observation untrue. Among the many reasons an individual may have to be defensive, a cloud of suspicion constantly hanging over you must be among the most psychologically persuasive.

This country has come a long way since the Civil Rights Act was passed, but most black men would surely tell you that racial profiling—in all its many, insidious forms—remains a frustrating, demoralizing and all-too-common experience. As Dave Chappelle noted to Oprah when explaining the racism he felt he encountered in show business, “What is a black man without his paranoia intact?” Sadly, these days, still not much.