Recently, I was pulled over for speeding by a policeman just across the Wyoming border in South Dakota. I was going about as fast as everybody else around me. My wife and I were driving back from Fairbanks, Alaska, in a bug-and-mud-splattered 1991 Cadillac with Alaska plates. Pale, unshaven and unkempt, I looked like I'd been handcuffed to the radiator in my basement for a week, and my wife was simply out cold. Only our dog, Cosmo, looked alert from his perch in the backseat.
The officer asked me to sit with him in his patrol car while he radioed in a background-check request. Once I was in his car, he asked me what I thought of the drug problem in Alaska. I said, not much because I live in Washington, D.C. So he asked me what I thought about the drug problem there. I told him it's gotten a lot better now that we don't have a mayor who smokes crack.
I thought that was pretty funny. He didn't.
Eventually, word came back over the radio that I was "clean" in the legal, though obviously not in the hygienic, sense. He politely let me go with a warning.
I'm leaving out a lot, but it was obvious to me that he was more concerned that I was a drug mule than a speeder. After all, he didn't keep asking me about the "speeding problem" in Fairbanks or D.C.
Clearly, in the grand scheme of things, and even in much smaller schemes, this wasn't a big deal. But it did raise a few interesting issues for me and my wife -but not Cosmo.
First of all, in the most generic sense, I was profiled. According to some set of criteria, either on paper or somewhere or in the trooper's head, I looked like a guy worth having a conversation about drugs with. Lacking probable cause for an actual drug search, the cop used my speeding as an excuse to inquire about bigger offenses. He was polite, professional and an excellent kisser.
Just kidding about the last part.
Anyway, a bunch of my friends -conservatives all -see it differently. They assumed I should be angry or offended for being "unjustly" questioned and inconvenienced. But my view is, if you're in favor of the drug war (as I am, with a few caveats), you need to understand that police will make mistakes. If cops were permitted to sniff for drugs only where they know for a fact they exist, everything would be a lot easier for innocent people on the highways. But there would be a lot more drugs on the street.
The more interesting question, though, is, what if I were black? I am sure that there are many law-abiding black people who, had they been in my situation, would assume they were being profiled because of their race. They'd take the same set of circumstances and say, "Aha! I've been stopped for `driving while black.'"
I've thought about this a lot, and I can only reach one conclusion: that's the black guy's problem. Seriously, what other solution is there? The cop was polite and professional and he had a hunch. Still, if I were black, there'd be no way he could convince me that my race wasn't a significant variable in his decision to pull me over.
Does that mean the cop can't pull over black people on a hunch the way he pulled me over?
Of course not. The cop can't prove that race wasn't an issue and the black guy can't prove it was (in fact, the statistics on profiling actually break in favor of law enforcement). So, just get over it.
Besides race is a relevant variable, though perhaps less relevant than age and gender. Old black ladies, for example, don't get negatively profiled very often while young black men do. Why? Because young black -and white, and Hispanic -men are statistically more likely to be involved in bad stuff than women of any age. These statistics are naturally reflected in cops' hunches. To ask a cop to ignore his gut about a 22-year-old black guy illegally speeding down the highway because it's an elderly Asian woman's "turn" is idiotic on its face.
This idiocy is multiplied at our airports, where we are still supposed to believe old Finnish women are just as likely to be terrorists as, say, young Egyptian men.
Nobody likes to be pulled over. Nobody likes to be questioned about illegal activities they haven't committed. But so long as you think drugs shouldn't be legal and terrorism should be fought, you must be willing to accept a little inconvenience. Even if it falls disproportionately on your shoulders.