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Hailing While Black

5 minute read
Shelby Steele

In Manhattan recently I attempted something that is thought to be all but impossible for a black man: I tried to hail a cab going uptown toward Harlem after dark. And I’ll admit to feeling a new nervousness. This simple action–black man hailing cab–is now a tableau in America’s ongoing culture war. If no cab swerves in to pick me up, America is still a racist country, and the entire superstructure of contemporary liberalism is bolstered. If I catch a ride, conservatives can breath easier. So, as I raise my hand and step from the curb, much is at stake.

It’s all the talk these days of racial profiling that has set off my nerves in this way. Having grown up in the era of segregation, I know I can survive the racial profiling of a cabby. What makes me most nervous is the anxiety that I have wrongly estimated the degree of racism in American life. I am a conservative. But conservatism is a misunderstood identity in blacks that would be much easier to carry in a world where New York City cab drivers stopped for black fares, even after dark.

It is easy to believe that racial profiling is a serious problem in America. It fits the American profile, and now politicians have stepped forward to give it credence as a problem. But is it a real problem? Is dark skin a shorthand for criminality in the mind of America’s law-enforcement officers? Studies show that we blacks are stopped in numbers higher than our percentage in the population but lower than our documented involvement in crime. If you’re trying to measure racism, isn’t it better to compare police stops to actual black involvement in crime than to the mere representation of blacks in the population? The elephant in the living room–and the tragedy in black America–is that we commit crimes vastly out of proportion to our numbers in society.

But I can already hear “so what?” from those who believe profiling is a serious problem. And I know that the more energetic among them will move numbers and points of reference around like shells in a shill game to show racism. In other words, racial profiling is now an “identity” issue like affirmative action, black reparations or even O.J.’s innocence. It is less a real issue than a coded argument over how much racism exists in society today. We argue these issues fiercely–make a culture war around them–because the moral authority of both the left and right political identities hangs in the balance.

Racial profiling is a boon to the left because this political identity justifies its demand for power by estimating racism to be high. The more racism, the more power the left demands for social interventions that go beyond simple fairness under the law. Profiling hurts the right because it makes its fairness-under-the-law position on race seem inadequate, less than moral considering the prevalence of racism. The real debate over racial profiling is not about stops and searches on the New Jersey Turnpike. It is about the degree of racism in America and the distribution of power it justifies.

Even as individuals, we Americans cannot define our political and moral identities without making them accountable to an estimate of racism’s potency in American life. Our liberalism or conservatism, our faith in government intervention or restraint and our concept of social responsibility on issues from diversity to school reform–all these will be, in part, a response to how bad we think racism is. The politically liberal identity I was born into began to fade as my estimate of American racism declined. I could identify with a wider range of American ideas and possibilities when I thought they were no longer tainted by racism. Many whites I know today, who are trying to separate themselves from the shame of America’s racist past, will overestimate racism to justify a liberal identity that they hope proves that separateness. First the estimation, then the identity.

Recently, after a talk on a college campus, a black girl stood up and told me that she was “frequently” stopped by police while driving in this bucolic and liberal college town. A professor on the same campus told me that blacks there faced an “unwelcome atmosphere”–unwelcomeness being a newly fashionable estimation of racism’s potency on college campuses today. Neither of these people offered supporting facts. But I don’t think they were lying so much as “spinning” an estimation of racism that shored up their political identities.

We are terrible at discussing our racial problems in America today because we just end up defending our identities and the political power we hope those identities will align us with. On that day in Manhattan, I caught the first cab that came along. And I should have been happy just for the convenience of good service. That I also saw this minor event as evidence of something, that I was practicing a kind of political sociology as well as catching a cab–that is the problem.

Steele is the author most recently of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America

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