Should We or Shouldn’t We?: The Conundrum of Racial Profiling

The Seattle Times
September 2, 2002
By Alex Tizon

SELMA, Alabama  — Here in a sleepy corner of the Southern Black Belt, on a shady street once marched by Martin Luther King Jr., three townies discuss the complexities of racial profiling. September 11 brought an unexpected plot twist: for a few jittery months, there was something resembling unity on profiling people who looked Middle-Eastern. Americans of every color, including blacks, if surveys were to be believed, supported the government effort to scrutinize men of Arab descent.

“It’s just human nature,” says Pamela Johnson, 17, a junior at Selma High School, and showing a thoughtfulness beyond her years. She did not partake in the beer. Reclining in a folding chair, with a quart bottle of Miller Lite in a brown paper bag, Willie Bowe, 39, adds this: “Sometimes I stare at them, especially at, you know, airports, and I think, ‘… I don’t wanna die.’ ” Roger Johnson, 20, pants sagging to his thighs and a white rag flopped on his head, agrees. “Oh yeah, background checks are OK, you know, right after a bomb. You gotta do ’em. You’d be a dog if you didn’t, a fool.”

But ask Bowe and the Johnson cousins whether they approve of the practice of racial profiling, and all three, in a virtual chorus, will wail, “Nooooooo. No way.”

Thus the conundrum. In their own way, the three summed up the complexity of the national debate: visceral versus intellectual, often residing in a single body. The gut feels one thing, the head thinks another, and rarely shall the twain meet.

The semblance of unity, of One Nation Under God, right after the terrorist attacks lasted, oh, “about 5 minutes,” Bowe says between sips. During that period, at least for some, the racial divide between blacks and whites seemed to close a little, and their conflicts to diminish. Suddenly anger shifted toward a common enemy. Racial profiling of blacks, in the face of airliners crashing into America’s grand symbols, seemed relegated to the status of a domestic squabble. And though the consensus has begun to crumble, and the unity to fade, there’s still some hand-clasping.

In a recent Atlanta study, 74 percent of whites and 32 percent of blacks favored racial profiling in the war against terrorism. That suggests one in three African Americans, nearly a year after Sept. 11, approve of the tactic.

Atlanta, the self-proclaimed Capitol of the New South, is only 170 miles from this central Alabama town made famous in 1965 for its role in the Civil Rights Movement. Three protest marches to Montgomery started outside the Brown Chapel AME Church in the heart of town. The first march was brutally suppressed by police. The second march, led by MLK, again was stopped. The third, under protection of the National Guard, made it all the way to Montgomery, five days and 45 miles later.

Selma, a town of 24,000, underwent great transformation in the years since those marches. It’s part of the Black Belt, originally referring to the rich color of the soil, but the designation now also refers to population. Once overwhelmingly white, Selma is now two-thirds black. Its public schools are almost exclusively African American. The remaining whites have moved to suburbs with names like Quail Ridge and Lands Down and Valley Grand, where their children attend private schools.

Two years ago, Selma elected its first black mayor, James Perkins Jr., a 47-year-old computer programmer who had never run for office before. He unseated a white mayor named Joe Smitherman who held the office for an astounding 36 years. A former segregationist, who once referred to King as “Martin Luther Coon,” Smitherman, as one of his last official acts, quietly approved the erection of a new monument in the city. Five days after the new black mayor took office, unveiled next to the Confederate Heritage Museum (dedicated to Smitherman), was a five-ton statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and founder of Selma’s Ku Klux Klan.

The statue, though eventually moved to a less visible site, still mocks the black residents of town. So Selma has transformed and still managed — over decades and popular elections, over wars and national cataclysms — to remain remarkably the same.

Life in public housing

“Oh yeah, we’re back to where we were before,” says Willie Bowe, referring to the post-9/11 return to reality. Bowe and his two companions sit across the street from the famous Brown Chapel AME Church in East Selma. East Selma is all black. The church, still elegant, still emanating the grandness of its historical posture, is now in the center of a public housing project called George Washington Carver Homes, called simply Carver by residents. Bowe and the Johnson cousins all live here.

Bowe works at a meat-packing plant. The baggy-trousered Johnson won’t say what he does for a living. His cousin Pamela outshines them both and gives the impression of somebody who will leave the projects far behind. As a 15-year-old, she campaigned for Mayor Perkins, and someday might run for that office herself. By virtue of location, the three are the kind of folk easily overlooked by pollsters.

Some who live here have phones, some don’t. Many habitually screen calls, and won’t bother to answer if you’re not a familiar name. Carver is its own microcosm. White people seldom venture in. Tourists who want to see the famous church drive past with their doors locked.

Bowe, reclining in the fading day light, laughs and finishes the last of his quart. What is racial profiling anyway? It’s just a fancy new term for something people have done since leaving the caves: You look at somebody, and without knowing a single thing about what’s inside them, you make a judgment. Just like Bowe himself does when a white cop drives through the projects. Just like the tourists who click their door locks. “Life is what life is,” he says. “People will be people. What are you gonna do?”