Monday, March 11, 2013

House of Lies - Racial Profiling

A few episodes into its second season on Showtime, the upbeat and comical House of Lies (staring Don Cheadle) has ventured into new territory as it attempts to take a look at what happens when a young Black business professional experiences racial profiling by the police.  In the March 3rd episode (spoiler alert) Marty Kaan (played by Cheadle) decides to go for a routine jog through his neighborhood.  He puts on the outfit you see in the pic above, puts in his earphones like most joggers do, and goes for a run.  As he's running, a few police officers see him and decide that he "fits the description" of somebody who may have just recently committed a crime and they attempt to stop him but, because he's listening to his iPod, he can't hear the officers.  By the time he sees them and pulls out his earbuds, the cops have already developed a severe case of attitude, which doesn't vibe well with Kaan's Type-A personality, especially considering the bad day (week?) Kaan had been having prior to the run-in with the cops.  So Kaan decides to give a little attitude back towards the cops...and you don't need me to tell you what happens next when a Black man gives attitude to the LAPD.  In the following episode (again, spoiler alert) Kaan's son Roscoe asks him if the police will profile and attack Roscoe too some day.  Kaan tries to reassure Roscoe that such a thing will never happen to him because he's a good kid...but can a Black man in America ever promise such a thing to his son?

These two episodes particularly inspired me to write today because the exact same thing happened to me when I went out jogging one night.  Like Don Cheadle's character in the show, I, too, was listening to music, minding my own business and taking a jog one night.  Also like Cheadle's character, I was wearing a similar jogging outfit (I'll come back to why this is relevant in a moment).  So there I was, jogging at night while Black.  This is apparently enough to get you profiled in some states because no more than 5 minutes into my  run I saw emergency lights flashing from behind me.  At first I thought that a police car or ambulance was passing by, but the lights never passed me.  Instinctively I turned around to see what was going on when low and behold I saw a cop step out of his vehicle and point at me.  Immediately I took out my earbuds so that I could hear what he was saying and before I could hear two words a second police car pulled up and another cop jumped out and started walking towards me with his hand on his gun which he was wearing on his hip.

Now, even though I was only in my early-20's when this happened, I had had enough run-ins with the cops to know a few basic rules which apply whenever you find yourself in this type of situation.  Rule #1: no sudden movements.  Even if you suddenly develop the world's most annoying itch somewhere on your body at that precise moment, you better just sit there and take it.  When cops racially profile you that usually means that they're already looking for a reason, so don't give them one.

Shortly after stopping me, one of the cops asked "what are you doing out here?"  I looked down at my jogging outfit (similar to Cheadle's in the pic above), looked back at the cops and I say "well officer, as you can see," and I again motioned with my eyes down towards my outfit so as to direct their attention to what I was wearing without using my hands (which I kept perfectly still and in plain sight), "I'm jogging."

"Oh so you're trying to be a smart ass?" replied one of the cops.

"All I know is that I'm out here taking a jog on a jogging trail and I'm wearing a jogging outfit and jogging shoes.  So you'll have to excuse me, Officer, if I'm a bit confused here because it seems to me pretty obvious what I'm doing.  Is there some problem with me jogging here?"

Their response was that I, of course, "fit the description" of somebody who had just committed a crime in the area a few minutes before they had pulled me over.  I laughed to myself (inside my head, of course) and just did my best to assure these two cops, both of whom were White, that I was just a random Black guy out for a jog who didn't know anything about the crime report they had just received.  Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, they let me go on about my business.  Mind you, I never once showed them my ID because I don't keep a wallet (or anything else for that matter) in my pockets when I run.  So the fact that they just walked away without verifying my identification seemed doubly suspect.

But no matter whether a racial profiling encounter results in a beat down (like with Don Cheadle's character) or in you being able to walk away (like in my case), in either case you can't help but feel like you were singled out for something that you didn't do.  Your entire life can be disrupted at any moment whenever somebody with authority allows their racial prejudices to guide their actions towards you.  And there's really nothing you can do about it.  It's that feeling of helplessness that makes Kaan's answer to his son's question so powerful.

Please share your racial profiling stories or your thoughts on the introduction of this subject on House of Lies.

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