Right now, there isn’t enough known about the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black, by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old part-Hispanic, during his neighborhood watch tour in an Orlando, Fla., suburb. If evidence emerges that Zimmerman’s actions were not justified, he should be prosecuted and punished; however, there’s a larger issue that few people understand or have the courage to acknowledge, namely that black and young has become synonymous with crime and, hence, suspicion. To make that connection does not make one a racist. Let’s look at it.
Twelve years ago, a black Washington, D.C., commissioner warned cabbies, most of whom were black, against picking up dangerous-looking passengers. She described “dangerous-looking” as a “young black guy … with shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants, unlaced tennis shoes.” She also warned cabbies to stay away from low-income black neighborhoods. Did that make the D.C. commissioner a racist?
In some cities, such as St. Louis, black pizza deliverers have complained about having to deliver pizzas to certain black neighborhoods, including neighborhoods in which they live. Are they racists? The Rev. Jesse Jackson once remarked, “There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — (and) then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Does that make the reverend a racist?
The former Charleston, S.C., black chief of police, Reuben Greenberg, said the problem facing black America is not racial profiling. He said, “The greatest problem in the black community is the tolerance for high levels of criminality.” Former Los Angeles black police Chief Bernard Parks, defending racial profiling, said: “It’s not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It’s the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind, it is not a great revelation that if officers are looking for criminal activity, they’re going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports.” Are former police Chiefs Greenberg and Parks racist?
According to the Uniform Crime Report for 2009, among people 18 or younger, blacks were charged with 58 percent of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, 67 percent of robberies, 42 percent of aggravated assaults and 43 percent of auto thefts. As for murder, more than 90 percent of the time, their victims were black. These statistics, showing a strong interconnection among race, youth and crime, are a far better explanation for racial profiling and suspicion than simple racism.
Black Americans have spoken out against racial profiling by police. They’ve been insulted by store personnel who might give them extra scrutiny. There’s the insult of the sound of a car door being locked when a black approaches. It’s insulting to have taxi drivers pass up a black person and pick up white people down the street. In a similar vein, I’m sure that a law-abiding Muslim is insulted when given extra scrutiny at airports or listening to Fox News reporter Juan Williams, who was fired by National Public Radio in 2010 for publicly saying that he gets nervous when he sees people on a plane with clothing that identifies them as Muslim. Blacks and Muslims who face the insults of being profiled might direct their anger toward those who’ve made blacks and crime synonymous and terrorism and Muslims synonymous.
God would never racially profile, because he knows everything, including who is a criminal or terrorist. We humans are not gods; therefore, we must often base our decisions on guesses and hunches. It turns out that easily observed physical characteristics, such as race, are highly interconnected with other characteristics less easily observed.
For most blacks to own up to the high crime rate among blacks is a source of considerable discomfort. Beyond that, it creates suspicions and resentment, which are destructive of good race relations, and it’s devastating to the black community, which is its primary victim.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
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