It’s not just Ferguson

Last class in WGS.111, we talked about the coverage of Ferguson. Everyone seemed to agree that the coverage was biased and that the incident likely would not have occurred had the victim been white. Even the federal government and parts of the media have since seemed to realize that there were likely racist undertones underlying the case. For some, this incident serves as an eye-opening moment, shattering the veil of a “post racist America,” in which many people seem to believe.

My problem with this coverage is that it seems to ignore and trivialize all the instances of racial profiling that don’t result in death. While I am glad that this case has shed some light on the situation, I think the coverage of this incident has left a problematic middle ground: why does it only spark outrage if a young black male is killed because of racial profiling? Does that mean people think it’s okay to racially profile people as long as it doesn’t result in death?

That may be a loaded question, but I think it’s a pertinent one. Bringing significant attention to this case can give the questions it raises a sense of novelty or rarity, when they’re part of an all-too-common narrative. The ACLU says on its website that:

Racial profiling disproportionately targets people of color for investigation and enforcement, alienating communities from law enforcement, hindering community policing efforts, and causing law enforcement to lose credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve. We rely on the police to protect us from harm and to promote fairness and justice in our communities. The despicable practice of racial profiling, however, has led countless people to live in fear and created a system of law enforcement that casts entire communities as suspect.

and includes links to numerous racial profiling cases and reports on the subject. Even these, however, focus on major instances of profiling. It makes sense – the ACLU is making a focused effort and should thus apply its efforts to the most egregious problems. Yet this ignores the things that happen every day. Wealthy black shoppers have been questioned by stores on suspicion of credit card fraud. People of color have been stopped on traffic violations in my 98% white hometown, with the thought that they could not possibly be doing anything but selling drugs. Travelers who look even somewhat Middle Eastern get routinely frisked by the TSA. This is but a minor sampling of the reality of the situation.

Yet I really have to wonder: Is it even possible to change this? Don’t take this to mean that I’m condoning racial profiling – I sincerely hope and believe that this practice will disappear. What I mean to ask is whether we can stop profiling people for something. If it’s not race, will it become clothes? Haircut? Type of car? Regional accent? Age? Gender? Orientation? Many or all of these already exist in some form or another. In the reading last week, Gorham discussed that stereotype are schemas (cognitive structures) that:

help simplify a complex social environment by quickly and efficiently processing incoming stimuli based on the presence of a few relevant characteristics … This allows us to make judgments about our environment without having to expend much mental effort.

With a cynical lens, Gorham is telling us that stereotyping is wired into our brains, whether we like it or not. Hopefully this is not truly or irreversibly the case, but only time (and maybe psychology research) will tell. In the meantime, the best we can do is to be cognizant of racial profiling, avoid the practice, and broaden awareness when possible.

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One thought on “It’s not just Ferguson

  1. Great point – I would also apply this to the recent incident involving Naomi Watts and her boyfriend, and their encounter with the LAPD. It has been extremely interesting to see how this has been covered in the news, both initially and in follow-up stories that are aimed at discrediting the actress.

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