What’s wrong with racial profiling?
Neutrality in the age of Obama
The arrest of noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his own home has produced an enormous public outcry for at least two reasons: first, Gates is famous, well-regarded public intellectual, who lives in the affluent community of Cambridge, Massachusetts; second, the President said the arresting officer had acted “stupidly.”
Enter chaos. Is Gates definitive proof that police rely too heavily on race or were the officers just trying to do their jobs? Would the president have complained had police arrested an anonymous black man in his own home if he had lived in a less wealthy urban area? Were the cops racist? Was Gates at fault for allegedly creating a disturbance?
Race has been a particularly difficult issue for Americans, but it is really just our specific case of a problem that troubles any democracy with racial, ethnic, cultural or religious diversity–the problem of neutrality.
All true democracies hold some version of the belief that all people are fundamentally equal. This leads to a policy of neutrality: no one should stand higher or lower than another under the law. Unfortunately, humans are not really neutral beings. They have individual identities and preferences. They also have group identities that frequently conflict with other groups.
Historically, the desire to manage these differences has been a driving force in the development of modern democracies. Europeans, torn for hundreds of years by religious strife, moved away from theological hierarchies under the law to a neutral state–one that would not discriminate on the basis of religion. Progress has been halting, but the basic idea of neutrality undergirds most developed democracies.
Americans have struggled less with religion, but the legacy of legal discrimination on the basis of race has made that issue our proving ground for neutrality.
The problem with the phenomenon called racial profiling is not simply that police may stop or arrest a black person. It’s the allegation that, rather than incidental to the arrest, race played a contributing factor. That is, police suspicion was aroused because of race. Such a practice, where and when it exists, is a violation of neutrality.
Racial profiling is a glaring instance in which neutrality is violated, but there are more subtle contexts that reflect our continuing challenge with achieving neutrality. African-Americans are routinely underrepresented in elected offices and on corporate boards. These are all outcomes, but some marshal these outcomes as evidence that many of our institutions (work, schools, etc.) are not neutral.
One reason Barack Obama’s election as president was considered such a watershed moment is that it proved to so many people that we have become “neutral enough” for a non-white individual to ascend to the nation’s highest office.
Neutrality is a non-negotiable value in our Constitution and our laws. With few exceptions, the history of most democracies would suggest that sometimes it takes people themselves time to catch up.