Category Archives: racial profiling

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


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


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…

Open Thread: Stop and Frisk Ruled Unconstitutional

South Asians protest against Stop and Frisk, via

The New York Police Department deliberately violated the civil right of tens of thousands of New Yorkers with its contentious stop-and-frisk policy, and an independent monitor is needed to oversee major changes, a federal judge ruled Monday in a stinging rebuke for what the mayor and police commissioner have defended as a life-saving, crime-fighting tool.

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin said she was not putting an end to the policy, but rather was reforming it. She did not give specifics yet on how that would work but instead named an independent monitor who would develop an initial set of reforms to the policies, training, supervision, monitoring and discipline.

“The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” she wrote. “In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting “the right people” is racially discriminatory.”

Police brass received warnings since at least 1999 that officers were violating rights, she said. “Despite this notice, they deliberately maintained and even escalated policies and practices that predictably resulted in even more widespread Fourth Amendment violations,” she wrote in a lengthy opinion.

She also cited violations of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

“Far too many people in New York City have been deprived of this basic freedom far too often,” she said. “The NYPD’s practice of making stops that lack individualized reasonable suspicion has been so pervasive and persistent as to become not only a part of the NYPD’s standard operating procedure, but a fact of daily life in some New York City neighborhoods.”
The Associated Press; August 12, 2013


Morning Mini-Doc: Where Am I Going?

“The first time I was Stop And Frisked I was 13 years old.”

That alone should inspire a total disgust in the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policies that encourage racial profiling throughout the city and prevents average New Yorkers from going about their daily lives. High school senior Kasiem Walters narrates this first video in a series, walking us through his lifetime of troubling experiences with New York City cops and their dehumanizing policies.

The video is part of the Where Am I Going campaign from ChangeThe and produced by Firelight Films:

Where I Am Going is a video series that peeks into the lives of people who’ve experienced NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk policy. These short documentaries gives us a glance into the lives of ordinary New Yorkers — a teenager, a mother, a clergyman, and a police officer. We start by sharing a teen’s story.

The police policy has impacted their lives and their neighborhoods. These are the stories of people who believe they can achieve many things, but are not always given the hope and empowerment they envision.

Share the video with your friends. Write a tweet about where you are going with the hashtag #whereiamgoing.

Stop and Frisk profiling continues to be a problem with few decent solutions being proposed. For those of us in New York City, it’s almost guaranteed that this is a topic our (lackluster) Democratic mayoral candidates will be asked about during their live televised debate on August 13th.

Elegy: The Racialicious Review for Fruitvale Station

By Arturo R. García

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) share a moment in “Fruitvale Station.” Image via

Fruitvale Station reminds us that the story of Oscar Grant is not over. And the world seemingly took a cue from that on Wednesday, when a federal court rejected his killer’s appeal, enabling his father to continue to seek justice in his name.

The man who shot Grant dead early on New Year’s Day 2009, former transit officer Johannes Mehserle, doesn’t say anything in writer/director Ryan Coogler’s account of the last hours of Grant’s life, a choice that not only allows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his loved ones more time to be seen and heard, but defines Mehserle as less character than calamity – a clumsy, confused-looking thing that happens. Both Grant and Mehserle are introduced from afar in the film’s opening seconds before shifting focus to follow Grant (sometimes, literally, from behind), pointing the viewer toward the same destination. But knowing what’s coming from a dramatic standpoint doesn’t diminish the visual impact.
Continue reading

Quoted: White people believe the justice system is color blind. Black people really don’t.



From the Poli-Sci Perspective Blog at The Washington Post: John Sides interviews the authors of  Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites. When asked how different perspectives on the justice system affect black and white views of issues like the recent Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, they responded:

These separate realities are consequential in several important ways. First, when blacks are cynical and whites are sanguine about the justice system, they tend to interpret the behaviors of agents of the system (such as police officers and judges) through these lenses, leading to what might be a perpetual spiraling effect. In one study, we gave individuals a chance to explain the behaviors of police officers in different scenarios—for example, whether the police department could conduct a fair and thorough investigation into charges of police brutality. In one scenario, the brutality victim was described as white, and in the other scenario he was described as black.

Blacks believed that the police could conduct a fair investigation into brutality charges—but only if the victim of the brutality was white. If he was black, black respondents doubted that the police could be even remotely fair. To whites, however, the race of the victim was irrelevant. They tended to believe the police department could do its job fairly regardless of whether the victim of brutality was white or black.

In another scenario, we described a police search and arrest of two men, identified as either white or black, who were walking by a house “where the police know that drugs are being sold.” Again, when the two men were identified as black, African Americans were extremely skeptical about the circumstances surrounding the police search and were much more likely to think the police planted the drugs on the men. By contrast, whites trusted the police because they think the system is fair and color blind. Thus, in both the police brutality and the racial profiling scenarios, when either the victim or the suspects were identified as black, African American respondents reacted with great skepticism, whereas whites appeared to form their impressions in a racial vacuum, as if unaware of the many sources of injustice that blacks face on a regular basis.

President Obama talked about this discrepancy as well: “And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” In these words, the president summarized the views of many African Americans that the justice system is not a level playing field. Read more…


Image Credit: longislandwins on Flickr