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Letter: On Profiling

To begin with, I’m white. Not really. Fresh-fallen snow is white and I don’t resemble fresh-fallen snow. Ethnically and/or racially speaking, I’m Norman/Saxon/Celt/Teuton but the U.S. Census worker who arrived at my home in 2010 said there wasn’t enough room on the form for the tribes and peoples with whom I identify myself so she checked-off “white.” Being white, however, doesn’t predispose me towards any favoritism with respect to other people so designated. Quite frankly, there are white people amongst whom I am uncomfortable and, in a few cases, might be tempted to take advantage of Florida’s self-defense laws.

Walking alone in the proverbial unlighted alleyway, I would certainly feel a twinge of anxiety if I were to encounter a white man - even a Norman/Saxon/Celt/ Teuton one - with shaved head, scraggly beard, bandana, multiple piercings and tattoos, and spike-studded leather attire. Assuming another installment of Mad Max was not being filmed in the alleyway, I could reasonably infer something about this fellow. I can assume he’s not an Amish wheelwright, professor of Elizabethan drama, or corporate CEO. Fact is, he looks too much like some of those violent street people we see in police mug shots and on the news being taken into custody for some horrid crime. (Gone are the days when criminals were nattily appointed and Al Capone set a standard for men’s fashions.) It’s common sense that I should experience great apprehension and exercise caution when encountering somebody that looks like him given that so many others that look like him have been guilty of nefarious deeds.

This isn’t prejudice. He and I, after all, are of the same skin color and might even have the same ethnic or religious backgrounds. It’s an acknowledgement that cultural affectations come with connotations wrought of past experience. The woman by the lamppost at 3 a.m. attired in fishnet stockings, stiletto-healed pumps, miniskirt, and sports bra is probably not a Catholic nun awaiting a taxi. The person in hospital scrubs and a white lab coat standing outside a medical center is probably not a truck driver. People who look a certain way are generally assumed to be a certain thing only because so many other people who look that certain way are frequently that certain thing. Not always, but frequently. That’s why harmless king snakes look like poisonous coral snakes and deter would-be predators; why the edible black-and-orange viceroy butterfly looks so much like the foul-tasting black-and-orange monarch butterfly. Predators engage in profiling and people do fit profiles in part because our culture tends to produce cohorts who dress alike, talk alike, and think alike whist expressing their individuality. Too, similar psychosocial influences manifest themselves upon demographic categories in similar ways. (Hence every neighborhood seems to have the “cat lady” - a stereotype found on The Simpsons but also in 19th century literature.)

What is profiling anyway? It is the correlation between demographic characteristics and particular behaviors. It’s an inexact science but a valuable tool nevertheless. Asking law enforcement to stop using profiling - to stop assuming that a rape suspect is more likely to be a young man than an elderly woman - is like asking physicians to ignore symptoms and case histories whilst diagnosing a patient. All my life I have been told “don’t judge a book by its cover.” True, the cover does not give insight into the literary worth of the book. But a tome entitled “Noblemen of the Italian Renaissance” is probably not about a young girl growing up on a farm in Utica, NY in the 1930s. Do we really have to be so open-minded that our brains have fallen out?

Paul Manton