Columns 2013

Just checking to make sure you’re legitimate

Before delving into the deeper issue of profiling that is occurring with greater and greater frequency throughout America, let me be selfish for a moment and see how the recent Zimmerman acquittal might affect me personally. Based on what happened in Florida, if I’m walking down the street breaking no law and am followed and then accosted by someone who gets physically violent with me and ends up killing me, that person may, with a totally straight face, claim self-defense. Wow. Even for the birthplace of the hanging chad, that’s quite a breathtaking perversion of common sense.

Now that I know that walking down the street minding my own business means I am being deliberately provocative to any would be vigilante, I can alter my behavior to avoid them attacking me.  Oh wait, that’s right, I’m a Caucasian female. I don’t have to worry.

Perhaps what this country needs right now is a code for people of color – you know, something that specifically defines how they should dress and just how light they have to dye their skin to not be provocative by their mere presence. Hoodies are definitely out if your skin is not white. Walking around at night is clearly a provocation unless you have papers you can provide to anyone asking that shows you are an upstanding citizen despite the hue of your skin.

Unless you have personally encountered this kind of confrontation, both with law enforcement and vigilantes, you really can’t understand how much thought goes into a simple gesture like wearing a hoodie on a cool night to jog around your neighborhood.

I have a dear friend who married an American Indian from an East Coast tribe. He has dark olive skin, as does his son. She worries, with validity, whenever her son goes out dressed in a hoodie. Her husband was first stopped when he was 12 years old and walking home from a community center. The officer who stopped him made him not only give his home address but describe how to get there to prove he really belonged. The cop outright said to him “You don’t really live around here, do you?” based on nothing more than the shade of his skin.

This same man made the mistake of driving through Arizona about ten years ago with his wife and kids. That time when he was stopped, he was asked to provide car registration, proof of insurance and a driver’s license. When he asked the cop if he’d done something wrong, the cop said no, he was just checking.

“Just checking.” Now there’s a phrase I bet a lot of Caucasian men do not hear from a cop while driving with their families on a Sunday afternoon. But it’s a phrase that men of color hear again and again. “Just checking.” Because apparently the color of your skin is enough to engender an automatic response of concern that you are up to no good.

My friend’s husband has been stopped enough times during his sixty some years of life that every time her son goes out jogging she finds herself saying a little prayer that he will return safely and no one will mistake his hoodie and skin color to mean he’s up to some nefarious deed. No mother in America today should have to think those thoughts. No mother in America today whose son is out to buy some tea and Skittles should have to worry that simple act could be her son’s last.

In America we seem to have become complacent with a lot of things that are totally un-American, from the government sifting through all our personal communications to vigilantes and law enforcement using skin color as a reason to confront and question a citizen doing nothing more than enjoying a little night air or a ride with his family. Unless you are a person of color or married to one, it’s probably hard to understand how unnerving that can be. I too pray that my friend’s son comes home safely every night because, like his dad, he’s a good man. Given a chance, he will contribute greatly to his community.

Of course, that assumes he’s given a chance to live his full lifespan and some idiot with a gun doesn’t shoot him first, ask questions later and then claim self-defense.