A couple of days ago we had yet another report of the shooting death of an unarmed black man by the police. The police say that he had been acting suspiciously. It seems like this is happening every other day and it got me thinking about how differently one assesses risks of death at the hands of the police depending on one’s ethnicity or socio-economic status.
For example, a couple of weeks ago, the young couple that lives next door to us were going away for a few days and asked my wife to feed their pet. They have a security system in their home and they told my wife how to deactivate it before entering the house and then activate it after she leaves. When my wife entered the house, the alarm went off because she had not deactivated it correctly. She came home and called me and I went over and turned it off, but by then the alarm had been going for a few minutes. While my wife went inside and fed the pet, I stood outside on the drive, expecting the police to show up in response to the alarm.
Sure enough, a police cruiser drove up and an officer stepped out. When he approached me, I walked towards him and he did not take out his gun. I told him what had happened and that we lived next door. He took down my name and when I apologized to him for bringing him out for no reason, he smiled and said that it was better to be safe than sorry and there was no need to apologize and then left. He did not ask me to prove my identity or that I actually lived next door or check if I had any stolen property on me. It was all very pleasant, as it should be.
The point was that at no time during this encounter did I feel worried that the police might suspect me of being a criminal who was standing guard outside while my associate looted the place. I did not put my hands up to show that I was unarmed and not a threat. I was not nervous. I have the sense of security (perhaps misplaced) that I should be above suspicion and I act accordingly. After all, I am an older, Asian man and we live in a small suburban middle class community that, while not free from crime, has the kind of good relationships with the police that is sadly so lacking in so many of our communities.
But I also wondered how I would have felt if I were black. I wondered what might have happened if my neighbors had recruited their neighbors on the other side of them or the people across the street to feed their pet and the alarm had gone off. Both those houses have black families as residents. If the police had responded to the alarm and arrived to find a black man there, would the situation have turned out differently? If I were a black man, I may have been quite nervous that the police may suspect that I was a criminal and that nervousness may well have been interpreted by the policeman as a sign of suspicious intent and made him much more wary of me.
I experience this privileged treatment all the time. When I shop, if I buy just a few items that I can carry without dropping, I tell them not to put them in a plastic bag because it seems so wasteful. No one has ever stopped me at the door as I’m walking out to check my receipt. This happened even at Apple stores where I walk out with fairly expensive stuff that I could have easily taken off the open shelves. A week ago, I bought an item at the back of the store that was on the shelf. I then walked to the exit at the front of the store with it in my hand. There were plenty of Apple employees around but no one stopped me. Maybe Apple has some sophisticated system whereby the person who sold me the item at the back of the store can inform the people at that front that I actually bought the item. But I doubt it.
I could try to say that people trust me because I have an honest face but the reality is that it is my age and ethnicity that result in me being profiled in my favor. Maybe that is why there is so much support for profiling. A lot of us benefit from it.