Several years ago, my wife was shopping for something in a fancy NYC department store. I had nothing to do in there so I stayed outside, leaning against the corner of the building, watching the street action, which in that part of Manhattan was mostly a lot of well-dressed men and women moving in a great hurry to and fro.
A guy in a green army field jacket came up to me and said, “Yo, man, you know anything about pre-Columbian art?”
“Not much,” I said.
“Too bad,” he said, opening the jacket and showing me inside pockets bulging with pieces of pottery. Before I could say another word, he moved off into the stream. I wanted to say, “Wait, let’s talk,” but he was gone.
After a while I got bored and went inside to look for Diane. I immediately picked up a tail. If you’ve worked in the criminal world, the criminal justice business or have watched a lot of B movies, all of which I have done, you get a sense for when you have a tail, when someone you don’t know is watching you or actually following your every step.
I maneuvered my path through the store, so a couple of times I was headed toward mirrors, and indeed, there were two guys in their 30s or 40s about six paces behind me. Both wore dark grey suits. When I made right or left turns and found another mirror to head toward, there they were, the same six paces back. They never came closer; they never drifted further away.
I was wearing running shoes, jeans, and a ratty t-shirt. My hair was long and I had a beard. One does not dress or look like that in stores of that sort, hence my double tail. I’m white, and I was then in my sixties, but the outfit and hair were enough to warrant the coverage. I had been, as they say, profiled.
After a while, from far across the store, my wife, who was far more appropriately attired for that place than I, called out to me: “Bruce,” she said. “I’m over here.” She waved. I waved.
In an instant, the tail evaporated. Her recognition of me trumped my attire and my look. As far as those two guys in grey suits were concerned, my profile changed from being a very suspicious person to someone who probably had an AmEx card in his pocket, which in fact, I did.
What if I had been black? Would the two-man tail have maintained its polite six paces for all that time until Diane noticed me or would it have homed in even closer? Would they have talked to me, asked what I was doing in that store in my jeans and running shoes and ratty t-shirt?
A booster (shoplifter) told me years ago that you have to dress right for the place you’re shoplifting from; that’s part of the craft. You dress too fancy or too sloppy for the place and they’re watching you from the getgo. And a sociologist friend said: “Poor people can’t shoplift from fancy stores. They can’t afford to dress well enough to be unnoticed.”
I almost always wear jeans but I wear hoodies only sometimes. I have three: one is plain grey; one has JACKSON STATE across the front (a gift from my kids); and one is green with USMC in big block letters across the front. I sometimes wear the green USMC one to faculty department meetings and zip it up and put the hood up and stare at a guy I particularly don’t like when he’s talking. It always freaks him out.
I’m still a white guy, now in my seventies, but the jeans and zipped up hoodie freaks this guy with a PhD out, every time. What if I were a black guy? Would the green USMC hoodie freak him out even more? How about if I wore the grey hoodie with no text on it? How about if I met him on the street?
Those are all minor stories I just told you but I thought of them a lot when the Trayvon Martin killing happened and the George Zimmerman trial was going on. The judge kept race out of the trial. The judge kept profiling out of the trial. I live on the easy side of profiling, as does the judge in the George Zimmerman trial. Most middle-class white people do.
One time, not long ago, I entered a rotary a few blocks from my house in my car and cut off a police car already coming around the rotary. In New York, as in most places, the vehicle in a rotary always has the right of way. The cop pulled me over, asked for my license. While he looked at it I said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” He had a stern expression on his face when I handed him the license. He looked at my address, handed the license back and said, “Be more careful next time, sir,” got back in his car and drove away. I live in a nice neighborhood and have a good street address. What if I’d been a black guy in a hoodie and the address on the license wasn’t a fancy street in Buffalo’s West Side but one of those streets on the East Side of Main Street most white folks on the West Side have never seen and never will see?
Not long before, a funeral procession had been on its way in the right lane down a two-lane street heading to a cemetery not far from where I live. I passed it in the left lane. A Buffalo cop flagged me to a stop and told me I’d interfered with a funeral procession and he was going to ticket me for that. I said I hadn’t interfered with anything: the procession was in the right lane, I was in the left lane. He told me he was now going to cite me for arguing with a cop, or something like that. He got really nasty. He demanded my license. He literally puffed up. I gave him my license. He looked at it, was quiet a while, then said, “Your car inspection has expired, I’m writing you up for that.” He wrote the ticket. Before he started the engine and motorcycled away, he said one last thing: “If you get the car inspected and send a copy of the inspection certificate in with the ticket within ten days, there won’t be a fine. This won’t cost you anything.”
That cop, I have no a doubt, profiled me: he looked at the address and thought, if I give this guy a ticket for this horseshit he will be on the phone to the mayor or the chief or a councilman. And he was right. So he saved face. He gave me a ticket for the only legitimate thing he could find, something he would have, under other circumstances, just told me to get taken care of. He was saving face as best as he could.
Had I been a black guy from the wrong side of town, what ticket would I have gotten? How long would the abuse from that guy have gone on? How much would driving in that left lane (which was perfectly legal) have cost me? How much trouble would arguing with that cop (who was in the wrong) have gotten me into?
Profiling goes both ways. People who as disempowered are further disempowered by it. People who are privileged are further privileged by it.
President Obama said Friday, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Yes, he could have, and George Zimmerman would have shot him, and he would not have been convicted for that shooting because Florida law says it is okay to shoot to death people who make you nervous.
Would George Zimmerman, I wonder, have shot me, if I had been wearing one of my three hoodies and had turned, and if he had seen that the face under the hoodie was white? Or would he have abandoned the chase, just as that tail evaporated in that fancy Manhattan department store when my properly-attired wife called to me from across the aisles, and just as that Buffalo policeman gave me my driver’s license back when he saw the address on it and said, “Be more careful next time, sir?” and the other Buffalo policeman abandoned his abuse of me and suddenly become fascinated by the date of my car’s inspection sticker?
And had George Zimmerman shot me anyway—me, an older middle-class white guy—would that jury still have said, “It’s okay, never mind?”
Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo