Back in the early 1980’s, I remember having heard the term “racial profiling.” But it didn’t mean much to me because, given that I’m white, it never happened to me or anyone I knew. One of my good friends at the time happened to be Native Hawaiian (often mistaken for being Mexican) and started telling me stories about how he couldn’t walk across the courtyard at his apartment complex without being stopped by security and escorted to his door to verify that he actually lived there. That’s when I started paying attention to the issue.
I suspect that my experience is probably not that different from a lot of other white people in this country. It’s easy to dismiss the issues around racial profiling if it doesn’t happen to you or anyone else you know. And so, this week when President Obama hosted a panel discussion at the White House on criminal justice reform, he took a few extra minutes at the end to say that, when it comes to the Black Lives Matter Movement, the issue is real and we need to pay attention.
I thought of that ongoing need to convince white people that racial profiling is real when I saw that the New York Times published a front-page above-the-fold story by Sharon LaFraniere and Andrew Lehren on the reality of “driving while black.” To be honest, I had mixed feelings when I saw that. On the one hand, it is an excellent piece and I am thrilled to see such an important topic tackled in a way that puts it all front and center. But I also get discouraged. How long do people need to keep pointing this out before we finally get the message and do something about it? I can only imagine the reaction of African Americans who have lived with this issue for decades. This is not something that started in Ferguson. Eight months before the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, the Washington Monthly published an article that reached the very same conclusions we find in the NYT article today.
I don’t take a lot of pride in the fact that it took a friend of mine experiencing racial profiling for me to wake up to the fact that it is a real issue that we need to address. It reminds me of a column Leonard Pitts wrote years ago when Dick Cheney had a change of heart about marriage equality because his daughter is lesbian.
In such circumstances, injustice ceases to be an abstract concept faced by abstract people, but a real threat faced by someone who is known and loved. Makes all the difference in the world, I guess…
Unfortunately for Cheney, conservativism has no place for him on this issue. It does not strive to be thoughtful or even noticeably principled where gay rights are concerned.
To the contrary, being persuadable is seen as weakness and being persuaded proof of moral failure. In Cheney’s world, people do not seek to put themselves inside other lives or to see the world as it appears through other eyes. Particularly the lives and eyes of society’s others, those people who, because of some innate difference, have been marginalized and left out.
Then someone you love turns up gay, turns up among those others.
One imagines that it changes everything, forces a moment of truth that mere reasoning never could. And maybe you find yourself doing what Dick Cheney does, championing a cause people like you just don’t champion. Doing the right thing for imperfect reasons.
As Pitts goes on to say, getting to freedom is going to take a very long time if it requires every conservative home to have a lesbian daughter. And if every white person needs to have a best friend who experienced racial profiling in order for us to finally take the issue seriously, justice comes too slowly.
So in the end, I’ll celebrate that the NYT is highlighting this problem once again and that President Obama continues to tell us that the concerns of the Black Lives Matter Movement are real. I just hope that more of us are listening and perhaps even persuadable.