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The unasked question about racial profiling

Wednesday, April 09, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Ancella Bickley Livers

I watched a video clip on Facebook last night. It was one of those online videos that makes endless trips around the e-universe — my husband saw it a year ago — but it was new to me.

It was from an ABC news story about racial profiling. The story showed the behavior of unwitting park-goers as they watched individuals who seemed to be stealing. It tells us a lot about racism. It also conveys another message: How women of color are often left out altogether when it comes to studying racial and gender bias.

The first part of the video showed a young white male in a public park. The man was vigorously trying to steal a chained up bicycle. And when I say vigorously, I mean vigorously.

He was cutting, sawing, yanking and otherwise trying to remove the chain that linked the bike to the pole. People in the park passed by the young man, some watched, and a few even asked if the bike was his. In response he would say something like, "not really.” Most of the people (who were mostly white) nodded or shook their heads in dismay, but none raised their voices or tried to stop the man’s behavior.

Related: "Forget the 'isms.' Embrace yourself."

The next scene showed a young black male about the same age as the white male and dressed roughly the same way. Like the white male, the black male was also hacking away at a chain holding a bicycle.

But unlike the white male, the black male got an immediate, loud and irate response from almost everyone. In fact, he drew a crowd. People yelled at him and at least one man called 911. While the difference in response to the black and white males was stark, it was not surprising. At least not to me. The behavioral difference I saw was what I expected. And that response, and my expectations, saddens me more than I can say. But that's not the end of the story.

What about a woman?

What I hadn’t expected was the next scene. It showed a white woman ― blonde, trim, long legs. She was wearing shorts and a form-fitting sleeveless top. Like the two men earlier in the video, she, too, began pulling on and fiddling with the chained bike in an apparent effort to steal it. Although several men offered to help her with the chain, no one called the police. Later, one man told a reporter that she was a "girl" and people don’t think of girls stealing things.

After the scene with the white woman, the video ended. There was no clip of a woman of color trying to steal a bike. We don’t know how people would have reacted to a woman of color in this situation. Instead, we’re left with the strong, though unstated suggestion that the experience of this tall, slender white woman told us all that we needed to know about gender profiling.

As we explore the responses to women of color in other venues we find that just looking at what happens to white women may not tell the full story. For instance, Bureau of Justice statistics show that by mid-year 2008, African-American women were imprisoned at a rate that was twice that for Latinas and 3.5 times that of white women.

Further, not only are black women being imprisoned in alarming numbers, but their unemployment rate is also double that of white women. According to the Department of Labor, in 2010 the unemployment rate was 7.7 percent for white women; 7.1 percent for Asian women; 12.3 percent for Latinas; and 13.8 for African-American women.

A 2013 Think Progress report shows that while white women earn 78 percent of what white men make, African-American earn women 64 percent and Latinas  make 54 percent.

Women of color have different experiences than white women. But we don’t even bother to ask questions such as, "Are women of color racially profiled?” So instead of asking questions, we are left with facts that have no context and assumptions that have no facts.

Ignorance really is not bliss. It’s simply a way to continue the status quo and to deny realities that others are forced to experience.

As senior faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership solutions. She has interacted with thousands of managers and executives over the past 18 years, fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly those focusing on African Americans and women.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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