Racial Profiling and the San Bernardino Shooting

Man Holding Sign: Deport All IraniansAt Sunday night’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was asked a curious question with the lead-in, “I did want to ask you about a neighbor in San Bernardino who reportedly witnessed packages being delivered to that couple’s home, that it set off red flags, but they didn’t report it because they were afraid to profile.” I’ve heard this claim before. And it has been a big deal in conservative media because it feeds the narrative they most believe: that political correctness is destroying our nation and if we were just using racial profiling, we would all be safe. But it has never passed the smell test. It just seems too tidy and too much what people make up after the fact to contextualize this kind of tragedy.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is as up on this kind of “news” as anyone I know, and he explained that this claim isn’t even as strong as this. He wrote, “One neighbor of Syed Farook’s mother in Redlands, California, claims that another neighbor saw suspicious activity, but the second neighbor didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to engage in profiling.” And this claim itself comes from a single local television news reporter, although he reported it twice, so I guess that’s supposed to add credibility.

This whole thing leads me to the same place I find myself with the New Atheist crowd that claims that they just follow the facts. The brain doesn’t work that way. And I’ve seen far too many people unknowingly massage the narrative of things that have happened to them. It’s almost like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Step one: I don’t know what happened. Step two: You know what might have happened? Step three: It definitely happened. So I suspect that this went something like this:

A: “It just doesn’t make any sense!”

B: “I know. Did you ever see anything suspicious?”

A: “Well, they were getting a lot of packages. It seemed a little strange.”

B: “Why didn’t you say anything?”

A: “I don’t know. Racial profiling?”

B: “You didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to be seen as a bigot?”

A: “Yeah. I think that must have been it.”

On the other hand, if it had been just some crazy person, the narrative that develops is that they didn’t want to get involved or they (Rightly!) respect other people’s privacy. Normally, people don’t say anything simply because they have their own lives to lead. If they went around trying to explain why people do every inexplicable thing they do, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else.

This reminds me of David Mitchell’s video, Social Signals. It talks about our tendency to act out little scenes in public to signal what is really going on. So instead of just turning around and going back to your house to get the phone you forgot, you make a big production of showing to anyone interested that you have in fact forgotten something. But of course Mitchell is right: no one cares. That is, no one cares until you turn out to be a mass murderer. Then that “crazy” business of walking back and forth in the street comes to be meaningful in a way that it was not at the time.

It’s interesting that no one has gone back to San Bernardino to locate this neighbor of a neighbor who didn’t want to engage in racial profiling. But the truth is, even if someone did, it wouldn’t matter. At this point, it is impossible to say — barring a diary entry, “Those people across the way are up to something; I should probably say something; but I don’t want to be accused of racial profiling.” That sounds like something Glenn Beck will put in his next novel.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

15 thoughts on “Racial Profiling and the San Bernardino Shooting

  1. The annoying thing is that on one hand you have people calling the cops on parents who let their eleven year old walk to the store on his own two hundred yards from the house while on the other you have people who should really mention something to the police (like when they hear screaming next door.)

    And profiling doesn’t work long term because as soon as someone points out that there is some kind of statistical proof of who does something like a suicide bombing, the people doing this switch individuals which is why you now have women doing it along with men.

    • Yeah, people need to mellow out (There’s that phrase again!) about kids.

      It’s hard to know what to do. People call the police for a lot of things that they should. And they don’t call the police when they should. I can’t blame people because it can be a hard call. And spousal abuse is so hard to deal with. Of course, some things like guaranteed minimum income would help. Not that that is the only thing. It’s hard to get out of an abusive relationship. Our social bonds are strong, even when we are being brutalized by them.

      • That is true. Although one time I heard what I thought was some cats screaming and went to look outside and saw a guy punch a woman. So I called 911 and it was not until the operator heard her screaming that they bothered to dispatch anyone.

        The only thing that really happened from that was the attorney who normally represented them was super excited about a possible chance to call me to the stand.

        • There’s a big problem in that it is hard to fix problems like that when they have reached that point. It can be helpful to haul the abuser off the jail. But what I’ve noticed is that local governments in this area just start hauling everyone off to jail. And the greatest power of this is in its shaming ability. If half the guys you know were arrested for the same thing, it’s meaningless. Maybe this is why I focus on economics, because at least there you know roughly what should be done, even if it is politically impossible.

          • It used to be that police did haul everyone off. Then they found out that the victims would not report so now it is supposed to be the primary aggressor or whoever is the one who is doing more damage. Almost always that is the male since he is usually bigger and a punch almost always worse than a slap.

            It is a difficult thing to deal with because you have so many conflicting goals and emotions. But like with most things, just because it is hard to deal with doesn’t mean you cannot deal with it. You just have to take into account more so then economics what people do as opposed to what they say they do.

            • Yes. When my wife was arrested it gave me time to get away. But also, it made her so angry at me (because it was really my fault, you see) that she didn’t bother me for a long time. I have to say, she messed up my face! Yet it really didn’t hurt. And as a man, it gave me a certain street cred because it looked like I had been in a major fight. That was pretty cool for a guy who had so successfully avoided fights his whole life.

              • As a woman taught from birth to keep tempers down, I don’t get this need some men have to be in fights or at least look like they were in fights.

                I am glad you got away from that toxic relationship though.

                • In general, its hormones. This is the basis of much of my disagreement with the New Atheists: you think you are rational, but it’s all chemicals.

                    • Yes. Although there is a distribution and it does overlap. I seem to attract a lot of alpha women. Not that they are equivalent to alpha men.

                    • It may have something to do with the fact that they can be around me and there are no sexual overtones. We can just be regular guys, even if neither of us are.

                    • I would say it is the fact you don’t shove them into the background for the purposes of your own ego. Sure you can be insistent on point but it is because you can back it up, not because you are A Man And therefore Always Right.

                    • Could be. Could also be that I don’t have a problem being beta…

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