Like many people I was angered and disappointed by the jury’s decision in the George Zimmerman trial. And I was certainly tempted to make sweeping conclusions about the competence of the jury. For that reason I was all the more intrigued by Will Saletan’s article at Slate, provocatively titled “You are not Trayvon Martin.” What most intrigued me about Saletan’s article was not the conclusions he drew, but rather the fact that he forced himself to sit down and listen to seven hours of closing testimony from both the prosecution and defense before he drew his conclusions. In other words, his opinions were informed in a way that public opinion rarely is. And no surprise, his response was much more nuanced and muted as a result.
One of the big issues raised by the trial is the question of just what racial profiling is and when it is, or is not, appropriate to draw inferences about a person based on certain identifying markers.
Race is a huge issue, but it is only one of the issues. Indeed, merely identifying people is a potential mine-field, to say nothing of drawing inferences about them based on their appearance.
I experienced this dilemma recently at a conference where I was serving as moderator. It was my job to take questions from the floor, and that required me to identify questioners, many of which I didn’t know. So what kind of identifying markers are appropriate?
Gender and spatial location are both okay. “The gentleman in the third row.” “The lady in the back.”
Age is risky. “The elderly gentleman in the third row” is problematic. So if there are two gentlemen with their hands up in the third row, and one is elderly, you’d better find some other way of distinguishing them. (You could try “The distinguished gentleman” but that’s not without risk as well.)
Physical attractiveness is a definite no-go. “The attractive lady in the second row”; “The handsome gentleman in the front”? Fuggedaboutit.
Weight? “The obese man by the exit”? Definitely not!
And what about ethnicity? “The caucasian male in the third row”? I don’t think so. How about “The black lady in the front?” No, definitely not. Okay, but let’s say there are two caucasian and one black lady in the front who want to ask a question? How about “The African-American lady in the front”? Yeah, but what if the lady isn’t American? What if she’s from England or Kenya or Canada? Assuming she’s American isn’t justified. But reverting to “African” simpliciter sounds horrible! (And can you imagine identifying a man as Asian only to have him inform you that he is Cree or Mestizo?)
You’d think clothing at least would be a safe identifying marker. But I found that “The man in the pink shirt” inadvertently elicited a laugh from the crowd. Suddenly an innocent attempt to identify a man became a wry commentary on his masculinity.
I never realized how many taboos there are to navigate in our social identifying markers. Suffice it to say, I’m not anxious to moderate another question period any time soon.