Most people have a reflexive-fear reaction to spiders and snakes. Intellectually, they understand that most of these creatures are harmless, but because they know some are deadly, the instinctive reaction is cautious apprehension. How many of us smash dead any spider unfortunate enough to be found in our homes? We err on the side of personal safety.
Such instinctual prejudice is difficult to disassemble because it is hard-wired into us by nature and can subvert our objectivity. This survival mechanism explains profiling, which is clearly a form of prejudice but based on legitimate concerns for self-preservation.
Since 9/11, many of us are suspicious of people who fit the profile of Muslim. Most Muslims are not terrorists, but most terrorists these days are Muslims. Religious and ethnic profiling of Muslims, therefore, continues. It was recently revealed that the New York Police Department has been extensively spying on Arab-Americans in and around New York City. But, because this is perceived as proactive self-defense, there has been little national outcry over it.
The killing of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was in no small part a consequence of profiling. The general consensus is that because Martin was a young black male walking in an upscale residential neighborhood at night, he was perceived as a likely criminal by Zimmerman. Most probably, had Martin been white, Zimmerman would not have confronted him at all, and if he had, he would not have shot him.
This ugly incident has detonated an explosion of national outrage and spraying shrapnel everywhere, even up to the White House. The FBI and Justice Department will review the incident. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has appointed a special prosecutor to do the same.
So, are we OK with profiling Muslims, but not OK with profiling young black males? When and against who is profiling justified?
There is no doubt that young black men have been and continue to be profiled and harassed by police in communities across the nation. Certainly some of this is blatant racism, but much of it is instinctual prejudice.
I suspect that most people, especially older white people, even if they like to think they are enlightened and unprejudiced in matters of race, are suspicious of and on guard around unfamiliar young black males. People may understand that most young black males are not dangerous criminals, but their perception is that most violent crime is committed by young black males — a perception supported by credible statistics and reinforced by popular cultural stereotypes.
It is hard then for folks to get around their reflexive cautious apprehension of young black men, and not to err on the side of personal safety. Such an atmosphere of mistrust can have terrible unintended consequences, especially when it is embraced by law enforcement.
As America expands the police state with a proliferation of various armed security agencies, the opportunities for and the incidents of police abuse increase. Give a bully a badge and a gun and you get a very dangerous bully. Martin was killed by an agent of police authority — an authority that was quick to exonerate his killer.
And, as with every such incident involving guns, this one has ignited renewed hysteria to disarm the public. If that happened, who would be left armed? Criminals and thugs, either with or without badges. Better that we keep our guns to defend ourselves against anyone who would prey on us.
This tragic incident has also aroused vehement denunciations of Florida’s enhanced self-defense law, aka “stand your ground,” a law shared in some form by 21 other states. Would “be a victim or go to jail” be a preferable law?
Zimmerman’s attempt to invoke the “stand your ground” law as a defense for killing Martin does not render that law defective. That law does not sanction people to hunt down and confront others and then use deadly force as Zimmerman apparently did against Martin. It simply affirms the fundamental right of citizens to actively defend themselves against unprovoked attack.
The essential issue in the Martin case is neither guns nor self-defense laws; it is how profiling coupled with abuse of police authority can undermine fundamental civil rights, even resulting in the unjustified use of lethal force.
On the night he was killed, Martin was only guilty of being black. Maybe he was just trying to stand his ground when confronted by a thug — a thug who was armed while he was not.