Category Archives: racial profiling

Voices Revisited: 9/11 And Communities Of Color

Twelve years after the September 11th attacks, we wanted to take this chance to revisit stories told from the perspective of Muslim communities and other communities of color dealing with the event. First, this episode of the Ask A Muslim webseries posted last year, in which Imam Murad Abdul-Zahir breaks down the backlash against Muslims following the attacks: “Anyone even resembling a Muslim were attacked and came under a lot of scrutiny.”

And two years ago, Latoya introduced us to the Unheard Voices of 9/11, a collection of short testimonials that included this one from Gigi El Sayed.

“They called you racist. They called you terrorist,” she explains. “I was still a child. I barely understood the words and I would ask my parents … My mom almost had her scarf pulled off in an elevator.”

There’s also this story by Amenah, a Staten Island resident, about her experience after telling classmates she was making her pilgrimage to Mecca:

“I remember distinctly that the boy who was behind me had remarks for me not to bring a bomb back,” Amenah says. “I remember that the whole class had heard his remark, and that nobody had said anything.”

But to end on a positive note, let’s also revisit this video by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) — particularly the young student featured around the :52 mark: “It’s time we raise our voices and return to our ideals — of an America that is open to diversity, accepts varied viewpoints, protects the rights of all and is tolerant of differences.”

The racial empathy gap

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money.  At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing.  One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.”  There’s your next crop of lawyers, I thought, doling out the prison sentences to the poor and letting the rich off with a slap on the wrist.

Well, it turns out that there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon behind what I’d overheard.  Morten B. sent along an essay by Jason Silverstein in which he reviews the literature on the racial empathy gap.  All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter.  Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity.  Notably, both Black and White people  respond similarly.

Here are the results of six studies using self-report; in the first four, the relationship between race and how much pain subjects attributed to the target was statistically significant:

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What’s going on?

Silverstein explains that this isn’t necessarily about racial animosity or even identification with one’s own group (remember that both Black and White people show this response). Instead, it appears to be related to the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold.  In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.

Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter.  But, as Silverstein points out, we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity.  So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.

In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-t0-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin.  He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact.  That was just a hypothetical case, but Silverstein reviews research that shows that the racial empathy gap has real world consequences: undertreatment of pain (even in children) and, yes, harsher sentences for African Americans convicted of crimes.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter andFacebook.

Missed Connections NYC: The Not Quite Stopped and Frisked Edition

By Kendra James

Missed Connection (NYC, 2 Train): African American female searching for African American male she met while the NYPD went through her underwear…

Hey, so, I don’t know if you’re going to remember me–

Actually, scratch that. You have to remember me given what happened yesterday. And that’s ironic because I left my apartment specifically dressed to attract zero attention. The fact that I was wearing my brother’s old clothing– mens cargo shorts, a blue mens henley, and black chucks? That was a strategic move made by a twenty-something female looking to attract as little street harassment attention as possible.

Really, I was just trying to get to Bed Bath and Beyond in peace.

Continue reading

An Open Letter To Kal Penn On Stop And Frisk

"The Time Machine" PremiereBy Guest Contributor Bridget Todd

Dear Kalpen Suresh Modi,

I’ve been a big fan of yours for some time.

Even though I don’t know you, you always struck me as someone who was thoughtful about race.

When I heard your stage name Kal Penn really came from your wanting to see if white casting directors would be more responsive to “Kal” than to “Kalpeen,” I found it was so hilariously insightful that I couldn’t help but become a fan.

For whatever reason, I assumed you and I were similar. But on Tuesday when you tweeted that you were supportive of Stop and Frisk, I knew we weren’t as similar as I once assumed.

We had a brief back and forth about the policy on twitter, and while I appreciated you taking the time to share your thoughts, 140 characters isn’t enough space to adequately tell you misinformed you really are on Stop and Frisk.

Continue reading

Quoted: Kal Penn Tweets In Support Of Stop And Frisk (Seriously.)

Pretty much our reaction, too.

Actor and former Obama administration aide Kal Penn surprised most of his Twitter followers Tuesday when he strongly defended New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy. Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled that the policy violated the constitutional rights of the city’s minority populations and called for a federal monitor to oversee reforms.

Penn’s views also put him at odds with Attorney General Eric Holder, who filed a brief in support of the case against the NYPD.

— Lakshmi Gandhi, “Kal Penn Tweets in Support of Stop and Frisk and We Become Really Sad” August 14, 2013. Read all of his tweets over at The Aerogram.

White Times: 5 Keys To American Racism (Plus 3 Reasons For Hope) [Essay]

by Guest Contributor Hari Stephen Kumar, originally published at Kinetic Now

Trayvon Martin Protest Photo, by Flickr User WorldCan’tWait

Shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted, a friend said that “these are dark times in America.” To which I said, “No, these are white times in America, as always.”

In the month since the Zimmerman acquittal, the mainstream conversation about the case has morphed into a personal verdict on Trayvon’s behavior and a cultural indictment on black people more broadly. When even the President of the United States, a black man, begins his heartfelt statement on the issue by saying that he wants to address “the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling,” you already know that in the public imagination the case of Florida v. Zimmerman has become instead a Trial of Trayvon.

And when the President ends his speech by asking the American people to ask ourselves, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” you cannot help but reflect on all the ways that it was indeed Trayvon’s character that was judged and assassinated in both the legal courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

For many, this is one of the strangest things about the case: why did the trial’s focus shift to Trayvon instead of Zimmerman? After the verdict, why has the so-called “national conversation on race” become so fixated on “problems” with “black culture”? Why did the acquittal give license to commentators from across the racial and political spectrum to speak so bluntly in blaming black people for Trayvon’s death? How do we make sense of the ugly racial rhetoric coming from white commentators like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and NRA board member Ted Nugent who are so quick to condemn the character of “the black community”? Why do their talking points get repeated across online comments and in personal conversations?

And why do so many such conversations begin with “I’m not racist but …”?

I mean, there’s even a satirical app called iNotRacist which allows anxious white people to demonstrate their level of non-racism by surrounding themselves with tokens of minority cultures:

In all seriousness, though, how do people across the racial spectrum get to ask genuine questions about race with each other? What about people who recognize that there is indeed something deeply odd about race relations in America but are not sure how to begin asking about it without getting accused of being racists?

In summary, here are five keys that explain how mainstream conversations and perceptions about race in America contribute to a broader history of racial injustice:

  • Key #1: Practice racism without being racist
    American racism is more of a color-blind cultural racism than a personal racism. This kind of racism allows people to believe cultural stereotypes about minority communities in general, without feeling like they are being personally racist against minority individuals.
  • Key #2: Continue a long American tradition of condemning blackness (while confirming whiteness)
    American cultural stereotypes linking blackness to criminality go back a long ways, to discriminatory social policies and Jim Crow laws instituted after the Civil War that condemned black people as a group based on biased crime statistics. Meanwhile, similar patterns of crime by white immigrant groups were instead humanized and individualized.
  • Key #3: Use new Jim Crow methods to legally profile black/brown men with “reasonable suspicion” 
    Our current legal system enforces a new kind of Jim Crow policing and segregation in urban black/brown communities, while largely ignoring suburban white communities, through the court sanctioned use of de facto racial profiling and discriminatory sentencing in the War on Drugs. This results in a disproportionate suspicion of black/brown men.
  • Key #4: Rely on whiteness to deny ‘neighborliness’ to black/brown neighbors
    White privilege shapes the ways people interpret and suspect the actions of their non-white neighbors. This happens even if the person suspecting the neighbor is non-white, because whiteness is a system of beliefs that we are all immersed in, so you don’t have to be white in order to uphold the normalcy of whiteness.
  • Key #5: Stand your (white) ground by supporting gun laws based on white supremacist talking points
    Laws like Stand Your Ground (which, by the way, was absolutely part of the Zimmerman defense) reflect fears and paranoias that once were the domain of white supremacist groups but are now a part of mainstream NRA talking points that openly encourage violent white vigilantism as a “reasonable” response to suspicious behavior in “your” neighborhood.

These keys interconnect to explain how so many Americans believe and act upon a deeply entrenched set of cultural prejudices that make black/brown bodies automatically suspicious in everyday encounters, suspicious enough to justify an aggressive and even violent pre-emptive response. The next few pages explore each key in more depth, but there are also significant reasons for hope. Continue reading

Uh-Oh. The Pentagon Considers Well-Traveled, Broke Indian American Women Threats

by Guest Contributors The Aerogram Editors, originally published at the Aerogram

threat-level-high

The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge recently introduced readers to “Hema,” a character in an online training given to Pentagon employees to teach them how to identify “insider threats.”

Writes Sledge:

A security training test created by a Defense Department agency warns federal workers that they should consider the hypothetical Indian-American woman a “high threat” because she frequently visits family abroad, has money troubles and “speaks openly of unhappiness with U.S. foreign policy.”

As you can imagine, reading that line caused all of us here in The Aerogram’s headquarters to have a “Hey! That sounds like me!” moment.

Sledge goes on to say that the training was designed to help catch future Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens, who are both white men. (Editor’s note: We think the training would have been much more true-to-life if Hema had been the child of a Welsh immigrant a la Manning.)

Visits twice a year; inadequate work qualityBecause the training is declassified, anyone can now take it here. Examining the slides, we were struck by the fact that a character that regularly plays high-stakes poker was considered less of a threat than Hema, and that Hema’s propensity of travel made her as much of a risk as a recently divorced man mired in debt who openly worries about paying child support. Hema’s foreign travel, the slide notes, is a threat because it “gives foreign agents a chance to contact foreign intelligence services. She also demonstrates possible divided loyalty and financial difficulties. She is a high threat.”

Emphasis ours. Let’s break down exactly why labeling Hema as a threat to security is problematic. Using this training’s criteria, in order to be classified as low risk (0 indicators) by the Defense department, one would have to:

1) Estrange oneself from family and friends, not to mention cultural connections and heritage by not going back to India regularly. (Besides, who needs grandparents or your aunties when you have Uncle Sam?)

2) Be politically apathetic or somehow always support U.S. foreign policy, even though that policy could vary wildly from administration to administration. But never mind that. U-S-A! U-S-A!

3) Be financially well off. (But don’t you dare spend any of that money on foreign travel or political causes, like other well-off people do. Always remember: brown-skinned individuals have to be extra careful.)

For us, the strangest part of seeing someone like the fictional Hema classified as a high risk threat is that traveling internationally, exercising the rights to free speech and having political opinions are generally indicators of a well-rounded, actively involved citizen. Couldn’t the government use more inspired young people who know that the world is a big and complicated place? Why are these traits considered undesirable and threatening when the person possessing them is a South Asian American woman?

Quoted: Colorlines on being ‘masculine of center’ while black

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The weekend after the George Zimmerman verdict came down, Erica Woodland of Oakland stayed close to home. She could identify with the righteous anger expressed at the protests. But rather than join in, she canceled plans with family, postponed a trip to the laundromat and limited outings to work and the grocery store.

“I decided for my own safety, I need to stay in the house,” Woodland recalls”I knew I could be putting myself at risk for anything.”

The possibility of being targeted by police or by a fearful, overzealous civilian on account of her race was one consideration for Woodland, who is black. But so was gender. She describes herself as masculine of center, which means that her way of expressing herself – clothes, mannerisms – falls toward that side of the spectrum. It also means that like many of the black men and boys at the center of the recent conversation advanced by everyone from President Obama to Questlove, she’s been profiled as criminal or suspicious.

“We walk through the world and some of us pass as male,” Woodland, 33, says. “We get left out of this conversation.”  Read more…