Racial stereotypes are like Swiss Army knives

When I drew the assignment of covering the black guy in our annual touch football game, I figured I was in for a long afternoon. As it turned out I lucked out. He was slow. And I was astonished.

    On an intellectual level, of course I knew that not all African-Americans are fast runners. But I had been conditioned by observation to expect that while the race may not always go to the swiftest, it usually goes to the black guy. And even with the lesson from that football game, I still do.

    Some seers predict an America in a century or so, where the miscegenation blender has turned everyone into a light shade of brown. Well maybe, but in the meantime chasing color blindness is like chasing the horizon: itís not ever going to get closer.

    Racial profiling is going to be with us for a long time, and it may behoove us to accept it and recognize that it takes many forms. Some of it is harmless, some of it is humorous, some of it is helpful and some of it is just plain hate. It is only the last about which we need be concerned.

    Itís called discrimination and most people of conscience find it condemnable. When a large employer has few or no blacks above the janitorial level, when whites and Hispanics receive disparate prison sentences for similar offenses, or when Connecticut towns bordering cities fight tooth and nail to prevent even a few children of color from attending their elementary schools, it is incumbent upon us to ask some hard questions.

     On the other hand, no one should be castigated for watching the UConn womenís basketball team take the floor, as they did last week, against an all-white Boston College team and feel that the game was in the bag.

    Nor should anyone be surprised that Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks donít sell a whole lot of records in Harlem. Black rap artists, however, do sell most of their CDís to white suburban kids.

    All communities have their strengths and shortcomings, and there are benefits in recognizing them. Hispanic children die in car fatalities at a rate 72 percent higher than other American children. For multiple reasons, Hispanics are not as careful about using child car seats. A nationwide initiative began this week to educate Latino parents and care givers about automobile safety. That is a good thing.

    At the same time, because of those statistics, it is not discrimination if one were to discover that police issue citations for lack of safety seats more often to Hispanics than to white people.

    In spite of all the headlines, the recent report on the racial characteristics of people stopped by police in Connecticut led some people to some ludicrous conclusions, and any high school statistics student could tell you why.

    While the report did show a somewhat higher incidence of stops in some towns for blacks and Hispanics, it did not detail who, why or when. For example, many traffic stops are because of expired or invalid vehicle registrations, a problem which, for obvious reasons, disproportionately plagues poor people who are, in turn, more likely to be people of color in this state.

    Late-night speeders are statistically more likely to be men than women, so a review of such stops is not proof of gender discrimination.

    Dark-tinted car windows are illegal in Connecticut, and they are not the fashion for the BMW drivers in Simsbury and New Canaan. Itís not hard to figure out who is going to get ticketed for them.

    Just as the sheriff in those old Westerns would ask, "You new around these parts, stranger?" a police officer is entitled to a certain discretion to investigate suspicious behavior by someone who looks out of place. While this would not apply to a person of color driving down Route 1 in Old Saybrook, it might very well be called for in a residential neighborhood in that town.

    And it would definitely hold true for a group of sandy-haired white boys cruising around certain streets in Hartford or Bridgeport because thatís where and how such figures sometimes go to buy drugs.

    Our expectations are conditioned by what we see in our lives and what we see in the media. Once a week or so, the newspaper will tell of a major drug bust and the arrested people will be named Morales, Rodriguez and Gonzalez. And many of us were horrified, if not surprised, when an 11-year-old fresh off the plane from Puerto Rico recently stabbed another kid to death in a dispute over a girl up in Springfield.

    I donít know. Maybe itís up to each of us to seek a balance in such things. For me the cure to the pernicious side of stereotypes is to watch a woman drive to Starbucks in her Land Cruiser and order up a $6 latte knowing that she hasnít given a thought to her caffeine fix representing an hourís work to the immigrant who just washed her car, cut her grass or scrubbed her floor.

    The things we dislike in other people are usually things we dislike in ourselves.

    In the end, racial generalizations are like Swiss army knives. They are very handy when nothing else is available, but usually there is a tool more individually-suited to the job at hand. And sometimes using them can be a big mistake. The next time I line up against a black guy, while I will still expect him to be fast, maybe I wonít be so surprised if he isnít.


February 13, 2001