With all of the hubbub and fake outrage at Don Lemon’s suggestion that we start profiling young white men in law-enforcement, I think it’s important to point out that this already happens all the time. In fact, it has happened to me.
The year was 1996, so I was 23 years old. I had been in Germany for a week, and was flying back to the United States via Amsterdam. At this point in my life I had longish hair that I liked to keep untidy whenever possible, and the way that I dressed could best be described as “aggressively casual”.
For whatever reason, I hadn’t availed myself of the airplane’s “facilities” before we started to land; so when I got off the airplane, landing in New York City from Amsterdam, the very first thing on my mind was to find the first bathroom that I could.
So this is me: in my early 20’s, a sloppily-dressed white boy with unkempt longish hair, exiting an airplane that came from Amsterdam, looking extremely anxious with my eyes flitting from side to side as I walked as quickly as possible down the airport hallway.
Of course I was stopped by airport security.
Of course I was.
I was brought to a big, brightly-lit empty room with nothing but a four-legged table positioned in the exact center. I was asked to place my bag on the table.
“Is everything ok?” they ask me in practiced soothing tones.
“Yes… except I really need to use the bathroom!” I explain.
“OK, follow me,” says one man. While two more people stay at my table to go through my bag, the man takes me to a doorway at the back of the room. There is no door. Through the doorway, there is a small room that is completely empty except for a toilet. There is no sink, there are no windows, there is no waste-paper basket or receptacle of any kind. I go inside.
I pee into the toilet. I go to flush, and notice that there is no way to flush the toilet.
“How do I flush the toilet?” I ask, yelling to the man who is standing dutifully outside the open doorway, as if standing guard.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says, “I’ll take care of it.”
So I walk back out into the main room, where all of my belongings are spread out on the table next to my now-empty carry-on bag.
They ask me some questions about where I went and how long I was there, and after a maybe 30 minutes they decided (disappointed?) to allow me to continue on my way.
It’s pretty clear that I was profiled. Moreover, I completely understand why. If I had been in their shoes, I would have felt that someone who looked and acted the way that I looked and acted would probably have seemed suspicious as well.
Now, there were factors other than just being white and male that entered into the equation, I’m sure. I’m sure that the fact that I appeared nervous and was walking quickly was a big part of why I was stopped. Then there are situational things, like the fact that I was arriving on an airplane from Amsterdam.
But I have to wonder: if my hair had been shorter and clean-cut, would I have been stopped? If I had been a middle-aged man in a business suit, would I have been stopped? If I had been an eleven year-old Asian girl, would I have been stopped?
There is no way of knowing the answers to these questions.
But I do know this: All long-haired college-aged guys with scraggly hair buy drugs when they are in Amsterdam.
That’s a Fact, right?
It’s one of those “known facts” in our culture, as surely as Hispanic grandmothers are Catholic and thirteen year old girls love Justin Bieber. In our culture, it’s one of those things that a person assumes to be true until there is proof to the contrary.
So is it that unreasonable to think that at least part of the reason I was stopped was because of this “known fact”?
I have mixed feelings about the idea of “profiling” in law-enforcement. I don’t like the fact that people often seem determined to muddy up the terms “profiling” and “racial profiling” as if every case of one is an example of the other. The fact is, there are some things that people should be profiled based on.
Not everyone who acts nervous when they get off an airplane is carrying drugs, obviously, but I don’t really mind if I was profiled for that. I understand: it makes sense to me. And even though I was inconvenienced, I don’t mind.
Not everyone who has long scraggly hair is carrying drugs, obviously, but I also don’t care that much if I was profiled for that.
If I had been arrested on the basis of having long hair, I would have a problem with it. But in the greater scheme of things, my actual level of inconvenience wasn’t that great.
The fact is, I was held up for 30 minutes in an airport. I wasn’t tortured. I wasn’t handcuffed. I didn’t have my house searched. I wasn’t put in a cage. So as far as the bigger picture goes, even if I was profiled for being “a white boy with long hair coming back from Amsterdam”, I don’t really care that much.
What if it had been something worse? What if I had been thrown in jail for the night? What if I had been thrown to the ground, put in cuffs, and dragged to a police station for questioning?
Obviously, then the equation changes.
But this is why all of the supposed “outrage” about “profiling young white men” is so bogus. Nobody is actually talking about what the word “profiling” means in these situations. Does it mean randomly locking up young white men just because they look angry? Probably not.
Let’s figure out what we are actually talking about before we get all “outraged”.
I can hear the counter-argument already. It goes like this:
“Are you saying that it’s ok to pull over black kids driving in a white neighborhood at night? After all, you could argue that you are only inconveniencing them a little bit.”
This is a completely ridiculous flippity-flop argument. The two situations are not symmetrical.
Instead of talking about abstract things like “a history of structural racism”, let me instead go back to my own personal experience.
At the airport, I never felt threatened. I felt a little amused, but I never for a moment thought I was in any danger.
Let’s face it: at least in part, it was because I was a young white boy.
I was brought up in a household where I was taught to trust the police. I was brought up in a system that usually assumed that I was innocent. I was brought up in a culture where I had no reason to expect or believe that I would be beaten or handcuffed or thought to be guilty just because of who I was.
As I said, my feelings about profiling are very mixed. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t have all of the answers. I think everyone accepts “profiling” based on certain things (e.g. the fact that I looked nervous after getting off of a plane from Amsterdam). I think everyone feels a little awkward about “profiling” based on other things (e.g. that fact that I was a young white male with unkempt hair).
But we have to be very careful not to start drawing false equivalencies. We have to be very careful not claim that just because profiling is sometimes done stupidly that therefore it should not be done at all. And we have to acknowledge that the entire process of determining what traits “seem suspicious” is so fraught with ambiguity that even the best-intentioned laws can often be abused.
It’s a complicated issue. It will be debated, I’m sure, for a long time to come.
But at least let’s agree that not all profiling is “the same”. Let’s at least admit that profiling young white boys and profiling young black boys are not equivalent. And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that–at one level or another–profiling “young white men” already happens all the time.
My thanks to the David Pakman Show for making me aware of this news story.