Upton: Learning from racial profiling

Upton: Learning from racial profiling

August 6th, 2009 by Tabi Upton in Opinion Columns

Racial profiling has gotten much media attention in recent weeks. It began with the arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. That led to controversial remarks made by President Barack Obama, which provoked a passionate response of the Cambridge Police Department and finally resulted in a friendly drink on the White House lawn with all parties involved.

What actually happened? The professor felt disrespected, targeted and harassed in his own home. The police officer was simply answering a concerned call from a neighbor, and the nation responded with various voices. It's difficult to sort out, but it does bring to light an issue that has appeared off and on through the years but this time ends with pleasantries.

Racial profiling, which is basically defined as "the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin," has been a sore issue among minority communities for some time.

My own experiences with it began in college. I remember being pulled over with a group of other girls for absolutely no reason one night. The only thing we could think of was that our driver, though female, was a wearing a baseball cap and from a distance could have been mistaken for a black male.

The cop not only turned his patrol lights on but commanded her to stop driving with his bullhorn. After shining his flashlight in our faces and asking a few random questions, he let us go with no explanation.

I had friends who were sometimes stopped by campus police at our university and asked to produce proof that they attended school there.

Though I have had many positive experiences with police officers who have come to my rescue in time of need, offering protection, reassurance and direction, it remains that a high number of the black males I know have had some difficult situations with the legal system, even those who are college-educated, conservative-looking and with no history of breaking the law.

My father recently told me that even he - a pastor, missionary and teetotaler - was pulled over for allegedly driving drunk and that most all of his brothers and male relatives have had similar experiences.

Our country, a strange paradox of progression and deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs, still struggles to live above prejudice as well as intense reactions to perceived mistreatment, both conscious and otherwise. And yet, that's not the end of the story.

Which is what made the president's "beer summit" so amazing. Some of us become so befuddled, defensive, fearful or angry about race that we'd rather retreat into our corners to mutter over it than sit with someone perceived as the "other" and hear their differing points of view.

I have been guilty. We are all products of our personal experiences, perspectives, opportunities (or lack thereof) and specific cultural histories. But if we can be brave enough to share our differing thoughts openly and respectfully, receptive enough to hear the other side, we won't succumb to the dehumanizing attitudes we fear and dread. Perhaps our own "summits" could involve coffee, dinner invitations or open conversations with individuals who see life differently than we do.

For these reasons, the mending talk at the White House got my attention. I was greatly encouraged by the reminder that it's possible to keep the dialogue going even when all parties don't agree on everything and to meet somewhere in the middle when there's no easy solution in sight.

Tabi Upton, MA, is a licensed professional counselor. E-mail her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.