Racial Profiling — Yes, It Exists.
I need to preface this unique post with two very important notes about law enforcement, especially in light of recent events in Staten Island, NY and Ferguson, MO. Number one, there may be no more respectable person on this earth than a good and honest law officer. To protect and serve, to put your life on the line as needed for your fellow citizens – a good officer of the law should command as much respect from a community as anyone else in the world. And number two, bad law officers, and racial profiling, both unfortunately exist. As a white male, I’ve witnessed both of these on at least 3 occasions, and have heard personal stories (from good officers discussing the not so good) of many more. This post relays a very personal experience, and although no one was actually harmed in the particular event I detail here, the sentiment behind the actions is the same one that’s led to way too many out of control police actions since. Please read on…
In the Summer of 1993, a month or two after I graduated from the University of Illinois, my college girlfriend and I were trying to mend our rather broken relationship by taking a big family reunion trip together with her family (her relatives from all over were converging on Colorado for a week). Our trip had multiple legs, the first of which was just the two of us driving from Chicago to a different Midwestern state. We were meeting up with her just married brother and his new wife. Although I’d seen him a bunch of times at family gatherings back in Illinois, he and I never really got to know each other, and he’d just taken a job as a city police officer at their new location. In an effort to assimilate me a little bit into the family so to speak, I went on a ride-along with him while he was working his beat. For the sake of relaying the events here, I’ll refer to him as Stuart. I changed his name to protect the ignorant, not something I’m fond of doing, but nothing would be accomplished here by doing otherwise.
So we arrive in this city sometime late afternoon, and Stuart is working shortly thereafter. He and I head to the police station for the “ride-along” right after an early dinner. On our way there, I’m asking him questions about the job, etc. We get to the station rather quickly, and he takes me in to give me a tour, where I meet a few other police officers, and then ask them not to write me any speeding tickets if they ever see me again elsewhere (it was worth a try). Then we proceed to Stuart’s squad car and head out on rounds. So far, so good. I’m actually enjoying it, and I’ve met a number of really good cops (courtesy of my state trooper stepdad and police equipment-selling father) over the years, so I’m hoping he’s another one I can add to the list of “good guys”.
We’re driving all over town, he’s showing me around, while of course monitoring the police radio, and still, all good. Then, not too far into the evening, we come upon an older Grand Marquis, that appears to be bursting with passengers – let’s just say I don’t think anyone other than maybe the driver was traveling in comfort. Enter Officer Friendly to my left, who decides that what we obviously have here are some law-breaking Mexicans who must be harassed without cause. Now I think they had either a small crack in a tail light, or maybe one of their brake lights was out, something minor along those lines… whatever it was, it was just enough for him to pull them over and pretend he actually cared about the piddly infraction (believe me, he did not). The point here was to bust some law-breaking “spics” as he referred to them, and to do as much damage as he could to “whatever they were up to”.
Stuart follows them for a mile or so, all the while spewing the ridiculous reasons to me as to why he needs to pull these folks over. He gives them that mile or so, then puts on the lights and sirens and breaks out the macho. Awwww yeah, big bad police officer exercising his God-given right to racially profile, how wonderful. Meanwhile, the pit in my stomach continued to grow. Here I am, in a strange city, about to spend a week with this jackass and a bunch of other family members I’ve never met, and leg one of the reunion tour here is Racism 101, right out the gate.
So Stuart walks up to the car with his flashlight that could blind you in broad daylight, and starts the drill (yeah, Jay-Z wrote a song about this). I sit there with visions in my head of walking up to the car and apologizing on behalf of Captain Ignorance, and then the fantastical vision of driving off with the car back to the station to report his ass, etc. (the spending the night in jail ending tempered those visions). But it doesn’t take long before Stuart’s attitude undergoes a major shift, like at the snap of a hypnotist’s fingers, as soon as he evaluates everyone in the car. I’m sitting in my seat still, trying to figure out what the hell is going, and for a moment I thought maybe I was being harsh in my judgment of him, that maybe he had a reason for pulling over this specific car and wasn’t letting on to the whole truth… and that now that he’s realized there are law-abiding Hispanic citizens in the car, we’re all good.
Then it all became crystal clear when a couple of the “perps” stepped out of the vehicle, and I realized it was a car full of white teenagers. That magic snap of the fingers wasn’t from any kind of objective evaluation, it was simply his eyes registering a change in skin color from the initial expectation. And I started laughing because here’s this cop who thinks he has it all figured out, that his racist stereotyping and profiling give him the guidelines he needs to exert his power as an officer of the law, but instead the dumbass just pulled over the kinds of people who were just… like… HIM. Five years ago, Stuart would’ve been in that car back in Illinois on any given high school weekend. Congratulations on pulling over yourself.
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For a moment, I was actually proud that he received a bit of a come-uppance, something I would gladly point out to him. That should prove to him that trying to racially profile is not only wrong, but is a waste of his time (and our money as taxpayers by the way, among so many other wrongs). I felt like I had won… until he let them off with a verbal warning for the minor physical infraction on their vehicle, and then came back to the car. Then the anger kicked in…
If the people in that car were anything other than white, I can say with about 95% certainty that he writes them a ticket – in the very least. Instead, he comes back to the car smiling, and offers up something along the lines of “Ahh, they were just some high school kids out having fun”. I asked him if he wrote them a ticket or anything, and he awkwardly shrugged the whole thing off, as if even giving them a verbal warning made him feel slightly guilty – after all, we can’t be disturbing the good white people now, right?
At that point, I did everything I could to get that ride-along over with, and although I did clearly let him know that I was pissed, for the life of me I can’t remember HOW I did that (which drives me crazy because I remember everything else so vividly). I don’t think it was my normal, blatant confrontation (as you’ve heard me talk about before (see Stop Racism), because I usually remember those. Speaking up bluntly tends to have the greatest effect in those situations, because it takes the person aback and really sticks in their memory (and thereby sticks in yours as well, based on their reaction). But I was riding in a police car, with a guy I barely knew who was already showing a bit of a temper and had a gun… I don’t think it felt like the safest situation for me to do my normal, full throttle speaking up. If I had it do over again, I would lay into him and let the chips fall where they may, but hindsight, well…
Instead, I’m sure I said just enough to wind up driving a permanent wedge between the two of us. Stuart’s ego was NOT welcome to any sort of questioning, and because we were obviously two fundamentally different guys, there was no way for me to work around that for the entire rest of the trip. In fact, there was a blowup later while the entire family was playing a field of dreams softball game in Nebraska, where he really went off the deep end (it was non-racial related, so I won’t bore you with those details here).
About 8 days later I was back home in Illinois, more relieved to be home from a vacation than I can ever remember – and that’s saying a lot considering an uncertain post-college job hunt awaited me. But, truth be told, I wouldn’t have traded that end result for the alternative, which would’ve been to sit there silently, or worse, join in and pretend that, just because I’m a white guy, I share in the racist views of my girlfriend’s white police officer brother. Despite the tension that lingered for over a week on that trip, and kept me from ever feeling like I was on a real vacation at many times, staying true to myself and to what’s right trumped anything else, easily.
Finally, please remember that there are people, every single day, who endure terrible things on this planet that we as a civilized society should never stand by and allow (see Human Rights Watch). Ever. People who fight through it as best as they can, who overcome terrible, horrifying obstacles that we can’t even fathom living here in the United States (not denying that we have our share of problems here as well of course). My point is simply this – if you feel that speaking up or intervening in a situation of injustice is beyond your realm of possibility, that it’s too much for you to handle, that you’d rather stay in your comfort zone and just quietly watch… remember that there are other people around the world who deal with a much tougher life than most of us ever will, and yet they STILL stand up for what is right. If they can stand up, so can you. If they can fight back, we can fight against racial profiling.
I wish I’d said more to Stuart that night on the Midwestern police ride-along, but from that point forward my resolve strengthened significantly. Let today be the day that your resolve does so as well.