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No More Sympathy
Getting mugged changed my views on racial profiling
Chantal Hylton
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On my way to my cousin’s house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I decided to take a shortcut through the park. As usual, the neighborhood was full of boys hanging out. “Yo, let me holla at chu,” one of them said as I entered the park. I was texting and didn’t look up. Two boys started to follow me along the trail, one on each side of me. They forcefully asked my name, number, and address, and I began to get worried. Then they started trying to close me in between them.

The park was empty and I started to panic. I slowed my pace to stall, and they did, too. I could tell that something was about to happen, so I dialed 911. Before I could send the call, one of the boys grabbed my phone and they both ran. I began running after them, but then I snapped back to reality: I was physically weaker than them, and outnumbered. God only knows what they could have led me into.

I angrily walked to my cousin’s house and for the first time in my life I had some very cruel thoughts. I wanted these boys punished. I hated them and everything about who they were. I hated the fear and panic they’d made me feel.

When I told my cousin what happened, we decided to report it to the police. The cop wrote down a few things before he asked me the million-dollar question: “What did they look like?”

Detecting a Threat

I couldn’t answer. All I knew was that the one who talked the most was a dark-skinned African-American teenager in a black hooded sweatshirt. I couldn’t believe that was the only thing I could report: young, black, and male. I had been around black men all of my life—surely I should’ve been able to distinguish some facial features. Even when the police officer drove me around the neighborhood to see if I spotted the boys, I was useless. And that’s when I had an epiphany that altered my outlook.

As I’d walked back from the park I’d thought, “I hate them and who they are.” But I didn’t know who they were and I hadn’t even thought about them as two individuals. I’d just thought of them as black teen boys. So who, exactly, did I hate?

I certainly didn’t hate or fear all African-American teenage boys, but I hated the ones who looked like the guys who stole my phone. I hated the boys who routinely followed me down the street trying to talk to me, who hung out on the corner wearing saggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts, and tried to be “hard” like the guys in rap videos boasting about their criminal activity. What I once considered the norm suddenly made me upset.

Rethinking Racial Profiling

After that, I began crossing to the other side of the street whenever I saw a young dark-skinned male who looked “thug” or “hood.” There were specific things that triggered my fear—hard-to-define things about a guy’s demeanor and body language—that I began profiling as a threat. I realized that what I was doing was no different from the practices of cops accused of racial profiling. And racial profiling was something I had never approved of before.

Previously, whenever I saw an African-American boy being hassled by cops, I assumed the police were unfairly targeting him. In fact, one evening a few weeks before the phone incident, my cousin and I had been sitting in that very same park near a group of semi-rowdy boys who were practicing tricks on their skateboards. Two cops came by and started questioning them. Then they took the tallest boy, who also happened to be the darkest, and searched him. This made me angry.

image by Steve Castillo

As an African-American female growing up in New York City, where it seems like crime is often wrongly associated with blackness, I’ve always been sensitive to issues of race and the injustices minorities face. “Criminal,” “ignorant,” and “aggressive” are words often associated with African-Americans, and we’re often treated as such, even when we’re not. In stores, especially in Manhattan, it seems to me that we’re far more likely to be watched, followed around, or even treated rudely by sales staff who think we must be shoplifters.

So when I saw the cops patting down the African-American boy in the park, I instantly assumed they had no real reason to suspect him of anything. “That is so wrong,” I commented to my cousin as we watched. “Black boys can’t just sit in a park without being accused of being criminals? If they were white, this would not be happening.”

My outlook changed after my phone was stolen. I started to see young black men differently, or at least ones who dressed like “thugs.” I know it’s not politically correct to admit that a stereotype is true, but for many boys, that “thug” stereotype is pretty accurate. And guys like that were largely responsible for the negative stereotypes that tainted law-abiding African-Americans like me. Reflecting on this, I started to think of profiling by race, age, or dress as an unfortunate but sometimes necessary precaution.

Standards of Success

Of course, crimes are committed everywhere and anyone can be an assailant or a victim. It is not my intention to suggest that some people are genetically more prone to commit crimes—I don’t think that’s true. The reality is simply that most crimes committed in that area of Brooklyn are the actions of young black males.

Why? Well, many African-American neighborhoods lack schools that provide high quality education and, because of that, many of those boys may be educationally behind or unable to obtain the kinds of jobs that will help them break away from poverty. So, stealing or selling drugs is their form of success, the same way that becoming a lawyer might be in more highly educated communities. The difference is, the drug dealers and muggers victimize their neighbors, including people like me, and harm their own communities.

I realized that, ultimately, I just want to feel safe in my own community. If that means that some black males are stopped simply because they “fit the description,” then I think it’s worth it. I never would have said so before, but fear made me change my mind.

Triggered by Fear

As I found out when I was cornered in the park by those two boys, fear can make us see people very differently. Sometimes it can even trigger stereotypes. I think that’s what happened on a large scale after 9/11. Before the attacks, we never felt threatened by Muslims, just like I hadn’t felt threatened by the neighborhood boys. But then something happened and we suddenly feared them. After 9/11, all Muslims became suspected terrorists.

They are not just stereotyped by the police and airport safety officials, but also by ordinary people. For many, it’s not a matter of intentionally wanting to hate or mistreat others; it’s a matter of fear and the stereotypes that fear feeds on. People fear another terrorist attack, so whenever a Middle Eastern person walks into an airport, all eyes are immediately drawn to them.

It’s wrong, but I see now that to protect ourselves we do sometimes make unfair judgments. I don’t consider myself to be a racist, but yes, I do and will continue to rely occasionally on stereotypes and snap judgments to guide my behavior on the street. We live in an unpredictable world, and sometimes all we have to rely on are our stereotypes.

And even though I know that black boys sometimes get unfairly harassed, I can’t help feeling that the hassle and frustration this causes them is a fair trade-off, if it spares more would-be crime victims the fear and anger I went through.

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(NYC-2010-09-18)






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