We are all profilers

April 6, 2012 

The seemingly endless coverage of the Trayvon Martin case has brought an issue that seems to rear its head to the surface every few years. Many people seem convinced that one reason Martin was seen as a threat and “challenged” by a member of the local Neighborhood Watch was because he was black. Was he profiled by George Zimmerman that fateful day because of his race and the way he was dressed?

I don’t pretend to know (like so many seem to think they do) what exactly motivated Zimmerman to confront Martin that day, but the larger question of whether or not it’s ever acceptable to hold certain people under more suspicion than others based on their physical characteristics is an interesting one in any event.

On the one hand, you have those who contend that we should all be judged as individuals and that no extra attention from the authorities is ever warranted based on our physical characteristics. Others point out that it’s just common sense to direct more security resources towards, say, a young Arab man than towards an elderly Asian female, because statistically some segments of the population commit more crimes than others do.

On a more personal level, I think that if we are honest with ourselves on the subject we’d have to admit that profiling is something we all do on a day-to-day basis. If you’re walking down a deserted street late at night and you see a stranger approaching, you are going to size him up as a potential threat based on how he looks and how he carries himself. That’s profiling.

After giving the matter a little thought, I came up with a summary of the profiling system I would use for the proverbial stranger on a deserted street scenario. I would ask myself the following questions to assess the potential for trouble.

• Is he male? I generally don’t regard females as potential threats, as I’ve never been threatened by a female. Well, let me clarify that -- I’ve never been threatened by a female who I wasn’t in a relationship with, and we’re talking about strangers here.

• Is he between the ages of 12 and 50? Men are most likely to cause mayhem from the time they hit puberty until Father Time makes it difficult for them to flee the scene of a crime.

• Is he dressed like a gangster? The clothes make the man, and that’s especially true when you meet someone for the first time. If you are dressed like a thug, the safe assumption is you just might be a thug.

• Is he acting like an idiot? If you are talking way louder than necessary, cursing, and glaring menacingly at everyone you meet you either hate other people or you don’t care that you are making them uncomfortable. That sends a message that you are not to be trusted.

If the answer to all those questions is “yes” I’d likely cross the street to avoid that person. Note that nowhere in the list did I mention race. I think I can say with plenty of conviction that if I had to share an elevator with either a well-dressed, polite black person or an obnoxious, swastika-covered white skinhead, race would not be a deciding factor.

Having said all that, however, let me add one more thing. The system I described influences how wary I would be of a stranger. I would not, however, use this system as any kind of justification to harass someone just because of their gender, age or fashion sense.

Unless someone is trespassing on private property or otherwise behaving in a criminal or overtly threatening manner, they have the right to be left alone to go about their business. All of us should be able to walk down a public street without being followed, stalked or otherwise harassed. A healthy dose of mind-your-own-business would have prevented the Trayvon Martin tragedy from ever happening.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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