How do you decide?
Truth is, by human nature alone, it is impossible not to profile other people. We all do it.
There are times it is done by ignorant people. And those times are when profiling becomes a matter of bad discrimination - "bad," because there is such a thing as appropriate discrimination (like when choosing to date the guy with a job, as opposed to the jobless loser who lives with his parents, or someone comes to your upscale restaurant in flip-flops and you deny them a table, for example).
I've been stopped by cops before for: driving while black, driving too nice a car, driving in the wrong neighborhood. Probably don't need to tell you this, but that was all bad discrimination.
Now, had there been a recent crime committed in the area by a guy fitting my description who was driving a vehicle that looked like mine, then those cops would have been dumb not to stop me. But they were dumb, because they stopped me for one reason only - not behavior, not bad driving, not a matching suspect description, but just because I was black.
So used in conjunction with good sense - and in the case of crime-fighting, with the law - some profiling is just fine.
However, I fear that those of us who worry too much about hurting folks' feelings have made "profiling" interchangeable with "exercising caution."
The two are not synonymous, which finally, finally brings me to my point: I've been reading, watching, and listening to reports over the past week or so that the six Muslim Imams who were removed from a flight in Minneapolis last fall after passengers and crew reported they were behaving suspiciously have filed suit against the airline for a variety of prejudices.
Several blogs have reported that the Imams also named some of the passengers who pointed them out in the suit, but I haven't found proof of that.
Regardless, in this post 9/11 era, I just don't see where the passengers or the crew went wrong.
If press reports have been accurate, passengers and crew have said the Imams requested seat-belt extenders, though none of them were apparently overweight. They said at least a few of the Imams left their assigned seats and repositioned themselves in other vacant seats - not to sit together as a group - in other sections of the plane. And several passengers said they overheard the Imams making anti-U.S. government comments.
It's a shame 9/11 has made folks paranoid. And these guys may have been perfectly innocent - returning home to Arizona, and just being themselves. But I gotta tell you, had I been on that plane and seen and heard the same alleged things I would have told the crew too.
In fact, I would have been pounding on the captain's door, yelling "Open this door, stop this plane, and remove these men!" Of course, that probably would have gotten me arrested too, but you get my point.
I love everybody. If I don't like you, your appearance won't have anything to do with it, unless you're sloppy and unkempt without the excuses of poverty and homelessness. And the fact that I feel the need to give that disclaimer should tell you how deep the paranoia goes. No one wants to fall back anymore on "Sorry for the inconvenience, but better safe than sorry." We can't just come out and say "You - your behavior and appearance worries me. Sorry." And that's too bad.
At my last newspaper, I was sent after 9/11 along with a photographer to NYC to track down a former Milwaukee firefighter, whom we had learned was the only survivor of his battalion.
I remember the tension on the flight there. People were nervous. Conversation was nervous. Even laughter was nervous. Passengers were giving each other those furtive looks. And, yes, there were a few passengers, who, based on their garb, were Muslim.
We felt sheepish and laughed about this later, but after the photographer and I observed one older Muslim woman walk past us several times before the flight took off - apparently going to the bathroom and back - we agreed that if she started strolling again as the plane made it's descent into the NY area he would hit her high and I would hit her low.
Yes, it was stupid. But I ain't afraid to admit that we were nervous as hell. And I'd just as soon tackle an old woman than hold back for fear of offending someone.
I want to meet Jesus one day, but I wasn't trying to meet him under those circumstances 'cause I was too embarrassed to risk being wrong.
The flight went smoothly. Our trip, though sad, was great.
But where do we draw the line? And how did we get to this point where "caution" has become synonymous with "discrimination," and "prejudice?"
The Imams say in their suit that ignorance and lack of understanding of Islam prompted what they say was an uncalled for act of discrimination against them.
But I don't think it's that complicated. I guarantee you no one on that plane was thinking anything about the religion of Islam when they reached out to the crew.
You know what they were thinking? We're scared.
Labels: discrimination vs. caution