Hooray for Profiling?

George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman
The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman took place on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, United States. Zimmerman was tried for second-degree murder and manslaughter and found not guilty. | Photo: | George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Florida, Shooting, Race, Trial,

Treating all black men as criminals does not make sense.

So George Zimmerman sees black teenager Trayvon Martin on a street in his neighborhood, follows him as a suspected (in Zimmerman's mind) criminal, then kills him when their confrontation turns violent.

The response from some pundits? Hey, it's a shame the kid got shot, but treating young black men as probable thugs is really pretty reasonable.

Rod Dreher, for example, says that when he lived in Washington and walked home after dark "I would cross the street if I saw young black men dressed like street thugs coming at me. " He argues this is just as reasonable as his daughter crossing the street to avoid men when she's alone: Even if the men aren't rapists, it's safer and smarter to be careful.

Richard Cohen says that while killing Martin was wrong, given "the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males" he can understand why Zimmerman confronted Martin.

Walter Williams, last year, said that "black and young has become synonymous with crime and, hence, suspicion," so profiling is logical. Blacks and Muslims who don't like this "might direct their anger toward those who've made blacks and crime synonymous and terrorism and Muslims synonymous." (Hint: He doesn't mean the cops, or right-wingers like himself who keep screaming that Muslim = terrorist).

The flaw in these arguments is that they have nothing to do with what actually happened. George Zimmerman wasn't someone worried about his personal safety. He wasn't crossing the street to avoid someone scary. Instead, he followed Martin despite being told by the cops not to do it, then pulled a gun when things didn't go the way he expected.

This is not the equivalent of Dreher's daughter avoiding men. It's the equivalent of trailing a man walking along the street, ending up in an argument with him and shooting him if things go south.

Another flaw is that, as all three pundits concede, most black men that cops profile are not criminals. "Most people" in any category are not criminals. Most right-to-lifers do not kill abortion doctors or blow up clinics; most Muslims do not commit terrorism; most men are not rapists. Arguing that because a minority of black Americans or Muslims commit crimes, all of them should be treated as suspects makes no more sense than arguing that every Italian should be treated as a possible Mafiosi or all Southerners should be suspected of being KKK members or committing hate crimes.

If Dreher or Cohen wants to avoid someone he thinks looks dangerous, that's their call, even if their assessment is way off and unfair. Just because they're nervous, though, it doesn't follow the government should investigate the group that worries them. It's no more logical than if I argued my nervousness near groups of teenage boys (I have this gut feeling they're going to jump me and take my lunch money) is a reason cops should Do Something about the kids. "I'm scared of X, therefore government should treat all X as a threat" is not a principle of law.

And while Cohen and Dreher may feel safer if cops treat black men as potential criminals and frisk them on that basis, what about the law-abiding guys on the receiving end of race-based searches and stops? Most of them will be law-abiding; studies show the the small percentage caught with something illegal isn't any larger than white people hit with random stops. It's not even remotely fair to suggest people committing no crime should be made to suffer police scrutiny because of their skin color, just so conservative pundits can feel safer in their beds.

And I wonder, would Cohen, Dreher and Williams (and the countless others who agree with them) be so keen if cops applied the same scrutiny to other groups? Abortion clinic bombings and murders are overwhelmingly perpetrated by white Christians: Should we profile all white Christians near clinics? Or maybe the next time there's a rape, every man in the area should be forced to accept a DNA test. According to Williams' logic, innocent men in that situation should blame the rapists; I have a strong feeling that's not how he'd see it.

Trayvon Martin's death was not the outcome of Zimmerman behaving in some perfectly rational fashion. It's creepy that some people think otherwise.

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Updated Jul 11, 2018 1:00 AM UTC | More details


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