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Race (still) matters. How do we best teach this and shake up some deeply engrained beliefs about a post-racial, color-blind society? I have found one of the best ways to teach the ongoing impact of race is through the issues of surveillance and racial profiling. There are numerous tools available to combine academic research with online videos and everyday media stories that awaken students to the ongoing impacts of race.

Arguably, racially biased surveillance and racial profiling played a key role in George Zimmerman’s decisions that led him to shoot unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Would he have made the same assumptions if Trayvon was someone other than a young black male wearing a hoodie? Other examples that demonstrate remaining societal racial bias about non-white males include:

  • Recently, plain clothes NYC police officers did not recognize out-of-uniform, off-duty (but sitting in a department-issued SUV with an ID around his neck) three-star police chief, Douglas Zeigler. He is Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 6.52.47 PMAfrican American. Clearly, in the officers’ minds, his image fit closer to that of a criminal than their superior. Not even his departmental ID could alter the white officers’ belief that this 60 year-old black male was a trouble maker and not their commanding officer. They didn’t believe the ID was credible. His race trumped other credentials. Read more here.
  • This one first came to my attention via the blog, Sociological Imagination. New York city is home to one of the most aggressive “stop and frisk” programs that encourages/requires Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 7.08.29 PMpolice officers to, well it’s all in the name, stop and frisk people on the streets. Again, one’s race matters, as it seems to determine if you in fact get stopped and frisked – if you appear “suspicious”. A 2012 report states that 84% of the 1.6 million stopped in 2010-12 were African Americans and Latinos. More data is available here.  This video recaptures one young person’s experience and some testimony from officers themselves. A federal judge recently declared the implementation of this program unconstitutional and may require police officers to wear cameras to document their actions. Mayor Bloomberg argues that it has made the city safer (trumping any concerns of the racial profiling).
  • I always use this next video in class, as it generates some real gasps (a key indicator of learning) among students. While not a scientifically controlled experiment (that fact should be used as another teachable moment in class), ABC news creates a situation in a public park where Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 8.22.45 AMdifferent individuals attempt to steal a locked bike – a white male, a black male, and a white female. The white male is inquisitively questioned by passers-by but only one bothers to do anything beyond look completely perplexed. Take the same scene, same bike, location, and dress, but insert a young black male and within SECONDS he is confronted by people in the park, in fact a crowd gathers determined to take action. “Is that your bike?” The attractive white female actually gets assistance in cutting the lock, although the sample selection process could likely be skewed by video editing.
  • My last example for this post is the Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 10.50.21 AMhighly publicized case of police treatment of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. This case, similar to Chief Zeigler’s experience, shows that status is often not enough to overcome race. A Harvard professor, Gates had trouble getting into his own home near Harvard Square in the early afternoon when the lock became jammed. The police arrived to investigate a reported attempted break-in. One of his neighbors and the subsequently responding police assumed he was a burglar, not a frustrated homeowner. By this time Gates was already in HIS home and was able to show officers his drivers license and Harvard ID. He was still booked for disorderly conduct. President Obama commented on the event and Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 10.55.41 AMeventually invited the arresting officer and Dr. Gates to the White House to talk over a beer. While not harrassed by the police, Obama was once mistaken as a waiter at a party when he was actually a state senator.

Race continues to matter as police officers and the general population continue to profile non-whites as more suspicious and lower status than whites. If you are white, like myself, you may not observe this occurring to others and subsequently not be aware of the additional surveillance and racial profiling that non-whites are subject too, even if they are police chiefs, Harvard professors, or state legislators. These vivid examples help us understand how racial profiling continues and we can’t rely on our individual observations or experience to make conclusions about racial groups’ collective experience in our society.

This is also a good case for teaching how structure is reflected in individual action. Here we see a larger, socially-constructed racial system embedding cognitive categories in individuals’ minds, over ridding other markers of status and driving assumptions of suspicion.


Ronald Weitzer has an interesting article on perceptions of police bias in three different neighborhoods in a 2000 edition of Law & Society Review.

In 2005, Weitzer and Tuch wrote more about the determinants of public perception of racially biased policing in Social Forces.

This article by Schidkraut adds racial profiling based on Arab appearance for counterterrorism compared to racial profiling of black drivers in a post-9/11 world.

The Russell Sage Foundation has an entire working group on the issue of racial bias in policing with numerous resources.

This article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Eberhart, Goff, Purdie, and Davies investigates the visual processing that underlies racial bias and crime.

I will leave you with a positive note. Due to legal enforcement, it is getting easier for non-whites to catch a cab in NYC.

– Teach well. It matters.

ADDENDUM October 27th, 2014

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Recently a black teen in North Carolina was handcuffed and pepper sprayed in his own home after White neighbors called the police upon seeing him enter the home. DeShawn Currie, an 18 year-old Black male, is the foster son of an all White family. After returning home from school, he went downstairs to investigate noises only to find police with their guns drawn and pointed at him. He tried to explain but the police were not convinced. His frustration grew and the police eventually handcuffed and pepper sprayed him. It was reported that one of the officers pointed to the photos on the mantle of the family’s three White children as evidence that he did not belong there.

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