I wrote sometime ago about how race and class influence whether a person benefits from the presumption of innocence. Two days ago I had another example of that.
I went to Target to find a replacement for my old cellphone that had finally given up the ghost and gone to meet its maker, the great Nordic god Nokia. After making my pick, I found that you have to pay for electronics in that department itself and not at the usual checkout counters just before the exits. So after buying the phone, I bypassed the checkout counters and headed out the door, passing through the detector. As I went through, it beeped. So I stopped and went back in. Nobody seemed to be concerned. So I walked through the detector again to make sure that I was the one who triggered it and sure enough it went off again. So I went back inside but no one was paying any attention. I then caught the eye of an employee and asked her what I should do and she told me to just go through and ignore the alarm, which I did.
It struck me that the reason I was ignored is probably because I look ‘respectable’, in that I am an older, not-black man who dresses like someone in the middle class. In light of the Trayvon Marin episode, I wondered what might have happened if I had been a young black man in that same situation. At the very least, I would likely have been asked to show the receipt for my purchase. Coincidentally, later that evening, NPR had a story on ‘the talk’ that young black men get from their parents repeatedly during their adolescent years about how to behave in public and around the police so as to not arouse suspicions, and one of the things that they are told is to always make sure that their shopping items are put in a bag before they leave the store so that they are not suspected of shoplifting.
I recalled that when I bought the cellphone a few hours earlier, the clerk in that department asked me whether I wanted a bag for it. I usually say no since these ubiquitous plastic bags are an environmental menace but I said yes in this case since I knew I had to walk through the big store before heading out and did not want to risk the chance of being considered a shoplifter. It was clear that the clerk (a friendly and helpful young black man who likely had got ‘the talk’ sometime in his life too) felt that there was no chance of me being mistaken for a shoplifter and hence gave me the option. I doubt that he would have given that option to a customer who looked like himself.
As another example, it is extremely unlikely that a person like me would be arrested and strip-searched for a minor offense like the suspected non-payment of a fine, as happened to Albert Florence, a black man. Although he had paid the fine years earlier, the database had not been amended to show it. Even though he carried a letter with him in the car saying that he had paid the fine, he was arrested, jailed for a week, and strip-searched twice.
The presumption of innocence is one of the subtle benefits of privilege. Since we are rarely aware of the things that do not happen, people who are not black are often quite oblivious to how much we benefit from that simple fact.