Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tennessean Reporter Owes the Problem of Racial Profiling More Than She Gives

Janell Ross is at it again. Nearly one year ago Ms. Ross trotted out a Tennessean story full of unsubstantiated anecdotes about an unnamed market in Salemtown or Germantown near which paranoid whites sicked the police on African Americans merely due to race. Not only was it disputable; it was marred by factual errors.

So, you'll excuse me if I take Ms. Ross's piece on racial profiling in this morning's Tennessean with a grain of salt. It likewise seems less about North Nashville neighborhoods and more about her own presupposed narrative about what happens in the community. Her focus on alleged racial profiling by police in North Nashville seems flawed and her past missteps merely reinforce my perception.

The problem of racial profiling is real and those who fight it deserve stronger evidence than anecdotes, apples-to-oranges comparisons, and reporters who approach neighborhoods with their own preconceived and erroneous agendas. The opponents of racial profiling deserve data ironclad by reporters who mine it objectively and make relevant comparisons between communities.

A better method of exposing racial profiling would be to investigate directly the actual traffic stops as they occur on the streets. However, the risk in doing that is the reporter may discover that the traffic stops may be more bonafide than a superficial glance at the statistics suggests.

For instance, if Ms. Ross ventures around the Salemtown neighborhood many mornings before 8:00 she will find police standing with radar guns curbside near the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Hume Street stopping cars along one of the most heavily used rush hour corridors into Downtown. Why are they not out casing local gambling houses? Because they are trying to prevent speeders from racing through a 3-block area where 3 crosswalks serve K-4 kids walking to 2 schools.

Whenever I see the officers as I drive my kid to school, they seem to be stopping speeders headed from I-65 to Downtown in droves. I'm sure that area alone consistently feeds the traffic stop statistics with high numbers. Would I prefer that the police be out apprehending the's new convention center lobbyist as he frequents area gambling houses? Not if having the traffic stop saves a single child's life as she walks to school.

These are the sorts of details that Janell Ross ignores. She should either compare these District 19 traffic stops to similar contexts in other districts or she should factor out traffic stops that obviously do not constitute racial profiling. But she cannot do either by interviewing Erica Gilmore or a social psychologist from California.

As for my council member's comments, I don't know which neighborhoods CM Gilmore is speaking about with regard to police sitting at traffic stops on the periphery but not entering the center, but I see the police patrols in cruisers in Salemtown (which according to Metro is 83% African American) on almost a daily basis. I see cops on bikes and horses patrolling alleys and streets around 2 or 3 times a week. Again, Ms. Ross's reportage does not fit with my experience in a North Nashville neighborhood. Given last year's botched story, I am not surprised.

1 comment:

  1. As a driver again for the first time in about 4 years in Nashville, I am amazed at the fact that I get pulled over a minimum of once a month. I suspect it has to do with my car. I drive a matte-black El Camino with tinted windows and a calligraphic font decal on the rear window. I've actually been stopped three times in Salemtown, once for "flying down the street" (by my speedometer, at 25 mph), as well as in the school zone, which is remarkable because I obey the speed limits carefully after receiving a questionable ticket as one of my last moments as a driver of the last car I drove. On the road for just over a year in this car, I've probably been stopped 20 times.

    Am I being profiled? Doubtless. Do I mind? Only when I'm actually inconvenienced by being late to a meeting or a movie or something time-dependent. Is it racial? That's a difficult question to answer. I always have my driver's license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration ready when the officer appears at my door, and I have never received a ticket in any of these stops. My vehicle has never been searched. Is this because a polite and friendly white guy with all of his documents at the ready and no music playing is the driver of the vehicle? Or is it because there was tenuous grounds for the stop in the first place? Are they hoping to catch me ridin' dirty? And should this bother me?

    There are clearly some built-in assumptions at the time of the stop, and I accept these. I am not driving a car representative of my peer group. Are cars strong enough cultural indicators that it's possible to know enough about the drivers statistically to know when it's okay to stop them for something trivial with the expectation that something non-trivial could be discovered during the stop? And, in the end, would such statistical indicators be racially based? And even if it is racial, is it wrong? If there's actually evidence of car make and model and detailing being correlated with incidences of illegal behavior, I'd say the profiling is appropriate. It's clear that the officers don't know my race at the time of the stop. But what am I to make of "dim tail lights" requiring 3 patrol cars to surround me on Gallatin Road while I'm on the way to a friend's birthday party in East Nashville?

    We've had enough drug and gang activity in Salemtown in the two years that I've lived here, that I guess I've grown generally comfortable with the type of profiling I'm experiencing. But, if I were a young black man who kept getting stopped and were building a record of difficult-to-disprove moving violations, let me tell you: I would be pissed.