Profiling

Blogger Danny (whose great blog Danny’s Corner I highly recommend) asked his readers to consider the following scenarios and share their thoughts:

1. You park your car and get out to go inside a mall. As you look up from locking and closing your door you see an Native American man walk by who makes direct eye contact with you. You double check to make sure your car door is locked.

2. Walking down the street one night you see a Jewish man coming from the opposite direction. Just before making contact you suddenly cross the street.

3. Waiting for an elevator you see that no one else is around…except for the Mexican man that comes from around the corner. You hope that he is not also looking to take the elevator.

This is what I responded:

As long as the three behaviors you listed are matters of personal choice and do not move to the realm of social policy, I see no problem with them. If I have, say, a completely irrational dislike of people in red hats and don’t want to take the elevator with them, that’s my right. Now, if I became governor and started legislating on the basis of my personal irrational fears, that would be wrong. But my right to suspect anybody of anything on any basis and not get into elevators with absolutely anybody I choose is inalienable.

I have a feeling that Danny wants to talk about the different ways in which we construct gender as opposed to race. That is an important discussion and I urge everybody to contribute to it on Danny’s blog. I, however, want to talk about the specific scenarios Danny listed, so I brought them here.

We all profile in our daily existences. I would never invite a person who has a loud laugh or a voice I find unpleasant into my house. I’m autistic, loud laughter drives me up a wall. If said person with a laughter doesn’t want to have autistics in her house, I recognize her right to do so, and would not mind not being invited. I also make efforts to avoid the company of my compatriots. I know I will not have a good time around them, so I try to stay away from their gatherings. When I was single, I refused to meet blond men. I don’t find blond men attractive, which is why I never even considered them as a possibility.

Of course, if anybody tried to transform these very personal idiosyncrasies into collective policy, I would be the first one to protest.

So what do you, folks, think about these 3 scenarios and the issue of profiling?

33 thoughts on “Profiling”

  1. I have to say, I would do all three of the things Danny describes simply because all three scenarios involve men.

    As a survivior of sexual violence, there are very few men that I actually feel comfortable being alone with. And if I’m walking down the street by myself and I’m about to pass a man on the street that counts as “being alone.” I would also make sure to lock my car because I don’t want a man to break into the car and hide in the back seat waiting for me.

    I react this way to almost every man I know when we’re the one two in the area.

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    1. Please let me say that I am by no means trying to say that you would be wrong for doing this in and of itself. There’s more to this coming soon.

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  2. On the one hand, this: “my right to suspect anybody of anything on any basis and not get into elevators with absolutely anybody I choose is inalienable.”

    is absolutely true.

    That notwithstanding, it’s a little disingenuous to equate racial profiling with a hypothetical dislike of “red hats”

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    1. Haha…left my name from the last thread up. Oops. Guess I’m stayin’ anonymous in Clarissa world for now.

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      1. When I avoid Russian-speakers (often going to very great lengths to do so), is that racial (or ethnic) profiling? Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t be entitled to avoid them?

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    2. That notwithstanding, it’s a little disingenuous to equate racial profiling with a hypothetical dislike of “red hats”

      For the sake of my argument the hypothetical people Clarissa dislikes being Red Hats doesn’t matter. You can put in literally whatever ever you want in the place of Red Hats and it will still play out the same.

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  3. I agreed with your statement that people do, ultimately, have the right to avoid any person for any reason. I’m just saying that comparing racial profiling to a made-up prejudice against red hats is disingenuous.

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  4. I thought that kind of behaviour was called making a judgement. There is nothing wrong with making a judgement, you just need to be prepared that the same judgement may be made on you.

    Judge not, that ye be not judged.
    For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again

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  5. I’ve had that behaviour happen to me and my mother together, actually. My mother, who is significantly darker than I am and therefore more visibly Native, has had store clerks follow her and I around sometimes when we’re in Montana, to make sure we’re not stealing anything when we’re shopping.
    I’m not going to make a fuss about it when it happens because it’s humiliating enough without escalating the situation, but from the point of view of the person being profiled, it becomes obvious after a while that this is happening and why it is happening, and it is very demoralizing when it happens.
    On the flip side of it, I avoid eye contact with everyone who is a stranger, and I believe it is my right to do so, even when someone calls out to me or tries to get my attention, I won’t lift my gaze.

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  6. I think profiling is pretty common practice part of a risk management system for personal comfort and safety. By the same token it should not be used to remove the safety and comfort of another. I see nothing wrong with stating a position based on profiling, like I’ll take another elevator I don’t like red hats. If the mechanism is visible and declared its easier to deal with. Its like saying its your issue and not mine, I can respect it but I don’t have to figure it out unless it applies undo influence on others. Declaring it makes it easoer to determine.

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  7. I am surprised to see a Jewish man in one of examples. I was aware of fear of Black men and Mexican men (illegal immigrants?), but never thought there was such a prejudice against Jews. Calling greedy and bankers, yes, but robbers? What’s up with it or was a Jewish man simply a bad example?

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    1. Danny is choosing unlikely examples on purpose, I believe. The goal is to get people to consider their preconceived notions. Just like the point of my post is to get people to stop dealing with reality through the use of meaningless set expressions such as “racial profiling” and “prejudice.”

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      1. But you can’t try to demonstrate the meaninglessness of racial profiling using the red hat example. If a person had a personal dislike of red hats, it would be truly individual, because no one’s telling them that people who wear red hats are dangerous criminals. People do say, however, that people of color (especially black and hispanic men) are criminals. They say it really really often. Prejudice against people with red hats isn’t a real thing. Prejudice against people of color IS a real thing.

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        1. I think I made the distinction between private feelings and public policy very clear. Or do you think that we need to be guided by what happens in matters of public policy in our private feelings? How can that be achieved? Should a person tell themselves, “There is no general discrimination experienced by people in red hats, so it’s OK for me to dislike and shun them. But there is such discrimination against Hispanics, so I should banish my personal bad feelings towards them”? Is that the idea?

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  8. I didn’t say anything about public policy. All I said was that your example was a meaningless one.

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      1. I don’t have the energy to wade into the real discussion today. The one and only thing I have talked about is the “red hat” example. I’m just pointing out that it isn’t useful to the discussion. So once that’s dispensed with, it seems like Evelina Anville’s doing a great job of actually engaging with the topic.

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  9. Well I think there are two things going on here. Should personal racial prejudice be illegal? Of course not. It’s impossible. As you say, the most important thing is to make sure that prejudice doesn’t influence policy. People are going to feel what they are going to feel…regardless of the law. Similarly, one has free reign to be jerk to his/her spouse or to be a bad parent etc. etc. As long as nobody commits physical acts of violence, being a jerk is unfortunately part of the human condition. However, large social trends that hinge on racial prejudice do create a worse society. Racial profiling puts entire groups of people at a disadvantage, makes them less likely to be hired, increases the chances of being pulled over by the police, increases the chances of being followed at a department store, ruins relations between the races etc. etc. Should people be allowed to avoid members of a certain race? Sure. We can’t legislate that. Is racial avoidance something that enlightened people should disparage and critique? I think the answer is yes.

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  10. A few months ago, I got in my car in a parking lot and locked the doors. A guy who happened to be walking by my car at that exact time frowned at me, banged his hand on my window and said, “Would you have locked your doors if I were a white guy?”

    Instead of arguing with him that I would have done so in any case (a woman had been abducted from that exact same parking lot a few years before by a couple of white guys), which he didn’t believe, I wish I’d asked him if he would have asked me that if I were a black woman.

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  11. The late Christopher Hitchens discussed similar scenarios.
    (three following paragraphs quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_Is_Not_Great)

    He was asked on a panel with radio host Dennis Prager: if he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night, and a group of strangers began to approach him, would he feel safer, or less safe, knowing that these men had just come from a prayer meeting? Hitchens answers,

    “Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case … I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”

    He gave detailed descriptions of the tense social and political situations within these cities, which he attributes to religion. He has thus “not found it a prudent rule to seek help as the prayer meeting breaks up.”

    In my experience, prejudice is usually born of experience. Rachel, your first respondant, bears that out. Hitchens had another prejudice against “people of faith” based on his experience. What we, as a society, struggle to determine, is whether some of the experiences we share are so universal that we should act on them proactively.

    For instance, if the proponderance of white men swindle old ladies of their money, do we prohibit white men from handling old women’s money? The hard part is knowing when the generalization is correctly applied, and whether to act to squash further risk.

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    1. Great story about Hitchens.

      I remember how shocked I was when I first heard that people cross the street when they see a group of black teenagers. I’d always cross the street when seeing a group of rowdy white teenagers (or Mormon preachers of any color). I always associated black teenagers, however, with a feeling of safety. And I still do, even after all the media barrage of negative information about them.

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        1. Of course, the real enemies of humanity are dog-owners. Those folks directly damage my health by letting their nasty animals run around and prevent me from walking. Just thinking about them makes my BP rise.

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  12. Another instance of profiling: when there are several store assistants or cashiers, I will always approach the one who has the same hair color as I do. And it was completely unconscious until I started paying attention.

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  13. But you can’t try to demonstrate the meaninglessness of racial profiling using the red hat example. If a person had a personal dislike of red hats, it would be truly individual, because no one’s telling them that people who wear red hats are dangerous criminals. People do say, however, that people of color (especially black and hispanic men) are criminals. They say it really really often. Prejudice against people with red hats isn’t a real thing. Prejudice against people of color IS a real thing.
    The point isn’t that its meaningless. The point is that its unfair. Let’s say the Red Hats did face racial prejudice wouldn’t that suddenly change whether profiling men of color is unfair or not?

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  14. Racial profiling is maladaptive, partly because it is poorly predictive of real risk. Behavioral profiling is useful, because it can have some predictive value for real risk, if performed well.

    I define real risk as risk of assault, theft, fraud, slander. I exclude risk of boredom, of lack of sexual attraction, of being subjected to to experiences/environments that are unaesthetic or unpleasant for the profiler, etc.

    People have the right to be assholes, and other people have the right to criticize, ridicule, or shun them.

    A woman in an isolated or non-public area who encounters any post-pubertal boy or man has every reason to be wary of the man/ men and to avoid him/them until she has had a chance to observe his/their behavior or move into a public area. Rape and other violence against women is sufficiently common in American culture and is perpetrated by men of all descriptions, including those who might be regarded as “pillars of the community”. Of course, most violence against women is committed by men well known to the victims.

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