Just like Trayvon Martin, I sometimes like to have a bag of candy, often Skittles, as I walk home or to a friend's house. Just like Trayvon Martin, I often put my hood on to shield my hair from the rain. But unlike Trayvon Martin, I have never been followed, stopped, or shot at by police.
Because unlike Trayvon Martin, I just happen to be white.
Sadly, that is the reality. Not me, nor any of my white friends, have ever been stopped by police, and we are no less "suspicious-looking" than our black counterparts. In 2011, the New York City Police Department stopped nearly 700,000 people, over half of which were black, and only nine percent of which were white. That certainly seems suspect in a city where nearly half of the population is white, and only one in four are black.
Advocates claim that the program is legal, necessary, and only a small price to pay for the potential of catching a criminal or recovering a weapon. But of all the people stopped in 2011, nearly 90 percent of them were completely innocent. Sure, it may be legal, but is it really making us safer?
There is an argument to be made for the guilty 10 percent. After all, if you're innocent you will just be let go anyway, so isn't it worth it for all of us to just sacrifice a few moments in order to catch the guilty 10 percent?
Mr. Martin wouldn't think so.
Unfortunately, tragedies like the one involving Mr. Martin are the result of the actions taken by the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Some will say that things happen when you are trying to catch criminals, and there isn't really anything we can do about it. The reality, however, is that those tragedies seldom involve a white person.
Racial profiling, as it might as well be called, creates a certain culture. When the police target specific groups of people at such a disproportionate rate, less-informed individuals will conclude that those groups must be more dangerous, regardless of the fact that most are innocent. It forces the targeted groups to live in fear and contempt of authorities, which in turn makes them look suspicious.
And if it is true that law enforcement sometimes goes awry, racial profiling only ensures that those legal burdens will lie solely on one group of people. That is neither fair nor necessary, and only feeds back in to destructive and offensive stereotypes.
That culture has evidently spread throughout the nation. If we fought crime based on evidence instead of race, Martin never would have been approached. It was because of this country's willingness to shove all the legal burdens on one group that this tragedy was able to happen.
Fortunately, this case has provoked immense public outrage. But most of the discussion has been focused on gun laws, Stand Your Ground laws, and whether or not Martin's killer should be prosecuted. Those are all very important issues, but lost in the discussion is the underlying culture that allowed this to happen. That culture will remain only until we crack down on law enforcement agencies that seek to paint one group as dangerous, regardless of any reason for doing so. So long as cities like New York and Sanford, Florida, continue to employ racial profiling, these tragedies will continue.
President Obama struck a nerve when he declared that, if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon." The president was right to make the matter a personal one, as we all should. But he was also right in making clear that, at its core, this tragedy was simply about one's appearance.
Trayvon Martin and I were around the same age, and were probably very similar. But because we were born different colors, I get to live and he does not. So much for justice.
Follow Jess Coleman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jesskcoleman