Monday, October 03, 2011


We are most of us guilty of profiling people, at least part of the time. You hear something about somebody's political or social views, you stick 'em into a pigeonhole: Well, yeah, he's one of those ________idiots, what you can expect? 

As if you are limited to one viewpoint about everything, right down the line. Can't be for the Second Amendment and the ACLU? Why not? It's not okay to like vanilla and chocolate ice cream equally? Against the war, but for the troops?

We aren't all knee-jerk whatevers all the time. 

Here's a scenario for you, look at it, and respond as honestly as you can:

You are walking home one evening from the 7-Eleven with some chips and salsa to go with the beer you plan to drink while you watch the ball game. You look up and see two teenagers coming toward you on the sidewalk. 

Now, let's split the frame: 

On the left, the two teenagers are young men with neatly-groomed short haircuts. Clean-shaven, they wear short-sleeved white dress shirts and ties, slacks, and they have in their hands books, and they bear small backpacks. You know what they are: Elder Orson and Elder Brigham, out on their missionary work.

On the right, two young men with shaved heads, three pounds of shiny hardware in their ears, noses, lips and eyebrows. Wife-beater T's, full tattoo sleeves on both arms, dirty and baggy jeans and Doc Martin boots. They have truckers' wallets with looped chains shoved into their pockets.

Which pair are you more worried about? 

(Yeah, yeah, I know, some of you are going tell me you are more concerned with getting the Joseph Smith lecture about the golden pages than being mugged for your beer, but stay with me for a bit.)

Would it make a difference if they were black and dressed in gangsta chic? If they were young women? Latino? Asian? Middle Easterners in traditional garb? Wearing turbans?

If it does, then you are profiling. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, although you could be completely wrong in your assumptions.

Orson and Brigham there could be a couple of muggers who picked disguises to put people at ease. Knowing that people who see them probably won't jump right to the notion of danger.

Adolph and Benito could be actors on their way to a community theater where they are playing punk-rock singers in a musical comedy version of Sid and Nancy.

Tyrone and James might be honor society suburban wanna-be's trying to look tough so they can get laid. 

Or not. They all might be exactly what they purport to be. But assuming anything about them based on your notion of judging books by their covers might be a large mistake.

The psycho killer Ted Bundy used to wear a cast, to convince people he was harmless. Those who bought it sometimes wound up dead.

If you are a cop or some kind of public or private operative, you probably have been told to pay attention to clues other than just looks, and to build a more complete picture, yea or nay. If one pair is openly carrying clubs, knives, or guns, one should probably take that into consideration. (Although when I was in our high school production of Oklahoma!, a car full of us dressed as cowboys and packing real six-guns loaded with blanks got pulled over by the police our way back from doing a promo on local TV show. We told them who we were, and they just let us go. Different times, the early sixties ...)

The notion of wolves in sheep's clothing (or vice-versa) goes way back, every writer I know knows how to milk this one.  

Just more food for thought ...


William Adams said...

Is it still profiling if it's based on one's actual experiences?

I went to a school in rural Virginia, shortly after integration and the re-opening of the schools --- I'm Amer-Asian, and was the first non-white, non-black person 90% of the kids had ever seen.

I'm sure everyone can predict how that turned out --- suffice it to say I was involved in a lot of fights.

As long as arrest statistics match up w/ profiled stops, and police are polite to those who match profile, but don't warrant arresting, I don't have much of a problem w/ it. (and in the summer, I usually have a dark enough tan, plus facial hair that I match profile and have been stopped --- not a big deal, chat w/ the officer politely, open the bag on the front seat if asked, no huhu)

bourgon said...

As Dennis Miller once said: "Why hate someone based on the color of their skin when, if you take the time to get to know them as a human being, you can find so many other things to hate them for?"

Joe said...

Worrying about the guys walking towards me with guns is not profiling.

But I understand your point.

As a dark skinned "White Guy" I was pulled over a lot every Summer when I was in my 20's. I never worried about it, gave the police my license and let them run their checks. I always figured there was someone that looked like me running around being more of an A-hole than I was.

Amazingly this completely stopped when my hair went from black to grey. Either we're all profiled as "Harmless" once we get past a certain age, or my twin dyes his hair.

Jim said...

We all profile. And there's nothing wrong with it.

Unless you refuse to adapt your profile to changing circumstances, either in the particular instance or in general.

I look at the people coming at me, and I take steps to be ready for what they appear to be. I come in contact with them, and find that the Latino Black Skinhead Bangers are actors or whatever... or just plain don't want any problems, they're out for a good time. But the LDS proselytizers? They're down on their quota, and they ain't going to leave me alone. Or they're really twisted serial killers who just killed the two preachers and are getting off on wearing their clothes.

Profiles are simply a tool. They help us begin to sort and categorize the world around us. But they have to be fluid, and discarded when they are no longer appropriate.

Brett said...

It's totally ridiculous to tell people not to profile when that is all our brains do, pattern recognition. You profile everyone you come in contact with because you are categorizing them according to your experience. That attractive girl in the form fitting clothes? - Hotty. That dirty man in the mismatched clothes and worn out shoes? - Homeless. Whether we are right or wrong in our categorizing, it will happen and we will have some response according to it. The Hotty? Try to get her number. The Homeless guy, give him some change if you're so inclined.
Not profiling a bunch of gang bangers coming your way could get you hurt or killed. Profiling a bunch of gangsta wanna-bes who are as dangerous as wet noodles as something to avoid only inconveniences you. I'd rather be inconvenienced and wrong than politically correct and dead.

Steve Perry said...

Hmm. I did say there was nothing intrinsically wrong with profiling, didn't I?

My point was not that people didn't do it, nor that they shouldn't, only that they shouldn't leap to the possibly-erroneous conclusion that that they saw was what they got without more information.

There are things that look dangerous but aren't, and things that look innocuous and can kill you. That if knee-jerk profiling is that the two kids in shirts and ties are Mormon missionaries and may be safely ignored, you could make a mistake.

I'm less concerned with wolves in wolf's clothing than wolves in sheep's clothing. Sure, I'm going to watch the skinheads or gangbangers, but I'd be missing a bet if I didn't keep an eye on the ostensibly-harmless guys.

When I was doing PI work, I used disguises all the time. Sometimes it was no more than a cap or jacket to change my profile, but I learned pretty quick that a hard hat and a clipboard would allow you to walk around a lot of places with nobody asking you who you were or what you were doing there. A labcoat and a plastic ID necklace will probably get you a pass in a lot of big hospitals even today.

A suit and tie, nobody on any big city downtown street will look at you twice.

Brett said...

I see now how my wording would be read as a criticism of your post but it wasn't intended that way. I apologize for the confusion.

It was a criticism directed at the all the various people who think it's even possible for an average person to not profile. It is part of a larger pet peeve of mine when people try to deny fundamental truths about what we are as a species. We really are only a few short strides from our animal origins. Our biggest achievement, IMHO, is our ability to consider the information our instincts give us and act accordingly instead of react to the stimulus directly. Even still, there are many instances where we can't even do that and others where we shouldn't take the time to ponder the choices, lest we fall prey to something.

As you said though, just because someone "appears" to fit a profile doesn't mean that they are that profile type.

I think "hope for the best, plan for the worst" is a good strategy for this sort of thing.

aa said...

I've thought about this a lot. If there are four or more young men, no matter the race or apparent social class, coming towards me my perception changes, mob mentality, young, dumb and ... and all. From previous experience I know I'm comfortable with up to three people but the fourth or more in my blind spot makes me much more aware.

Krimasen said...

Everyone does profile on everything and whether it's right or wrong is debatable. Myself, I tend to view everyone I don't know with an eye of suspicion. The world as a whole seems to be more dangerous today than it used to be. Or maybe it always was, it just gets reported more now.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping the guy with Krinkov in the last picture has his ATF forms properly filled out or he's is for federal beef not to exceed 10 years and $100k.


Steve Perry said...

Anybody besides me notice nobody has a finger on a trigger?