Saturday, March 01, 2008

Racial Profile

This time it was the turn of the state police. For the past three years, I’ve been reporting my adventures with discriminatory people and their remarks. This one deserves a special place. After all, it’s not just the expression of racist emotions that, we must accept, we all have. Rather, what happened this time is the expression of a racist institution that, we must accept, no social group should have.

A couple weeks ago three of us went on a road trip to the Upper Peninsula, the northernmost part of the state of Michigan. Jon’s uncle and aunt have an incredible cabin up there, right by Lake Superior. The sun and frozen sea get into the living room every morning. It’s sublime, with all the letters. So, of course, it comes with a pay: it’s the heart of the winter season, there are snow storms everywhere, it took us almost ten hours of driving to get there from downtown Ann Arbor. It was a torture with a piece of heaven at the other end.

A policeman delivered part of the torture. We were driving the I-75 northbound, with Jonathan – the only European-American in the car – behind the wheel. It was sometime around noon with a fair amount of traffic. Speed limit is 70 but every other car was speeding. We were all naturally flowing at 80, which is quite typical in the Midwest. At some point we see a state-police car looking around, we drive pass their standby point and they start driving. They took a few minutes before calling us down.

We were speeding, as everyone else was, at 82. But things were not so simple. For some reason the policeman was not satisfied by having the driver’s ID. He looked at the other two passengers, both Mexican. He stared at us, one at a time, then looked back at Jonathan behind the wheel, then looked back at us and asked: “do you have your IDs with you?”

What in the world…? Why should the passengers have to show their IDs? Were we indirectly responsible for the driver’s speeding faults? I was pissed off. The policeman took his time. A second police car came. Our friend needed backups to consult: “what should we do in this weird situation: a normal citizen behind the wheel with two doubtful individuals as passengers?”

He came back after a few minutes. He did not return the three state IDs at that time. Rather, he summoned Jon out of the car. So there goes Jon. A couple minutes later he comes back with our IDs. Why was he summoned? Well, they did not give him a ticket. No, everyone was going fast. So he just got a warning. But, they wanted to ask him if he knew us. They wanted to know if we were trustworthy, how have we been related to him, are we up to no good?

This is unbelievable…

But then again, this is part of an institutionalized practice. The policeman was doing his job. I wonder though, how much of this is really connected with a previous, individually nourished, discriminatory understanding of the world? How much is connected with one of my students’ comments in his first paper, when he was asked to explain a point in the readings, “can non-whites be racists?” The answer is a rotund ‘yes’ (as we all know) but his explanation was gorgeous: “of course, they can be racist to Hispanics”.