Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Driving While Mormon

Despite what some members of the judiciary may profess to believe (and some, at least, probably do believe), law enforcement officers engage (sometimes consciously and obviously, sometimes in unconscious and subtle ways) in racial and ethnic profiling on a fairly regular basis. This is not news to any African-American or Latino or Middle-Easterner or Muslim over the age of 8 or 9. (Even Clarence Thomas knows it.)

Despite what many of those law enforcement officers, and large percentages of the civilian public, believe, that profiling is not just offensive, it's ineffective. (Don't just take my word for it. Go read David Harris's brilliant book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work.) The problem is that policing by profiling is both overinclusive and underinclusive.

It's overinclusive because it sweeps in too many people. When you're looking for the bad guys, you want to narrow the pool of people you look at so that it's easier to find them. It's the metaphor of looking for a needle in a haystack. Profiling makes the haystack bigger.

It's underinclusive because it misses too many of the bad guys. Remember that right after Tim McVeigh, the very white guy from upstate New York blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the cops began by focusing their attention on middle eastern men. They were looking in the wrong haystack.

This is all fairly simple in theory but tough in practice. We all profile, all the time. Mostly it's a function of stereotyping. Members of this or that group are this or that. You can tell a book by its cover. It's not altogether wrong. Any sociologist will tell you that groups matter, and that group membership is indicative of some things. Not all people who listen to Rush Limbaugh agree with him about everything, but most regular listeners probably think he's generally right about stuff. And most of the folks who'll watch Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story probably share some of his attitudes.

Which brings me to the great state of Utah, Salt Lake City, and the Mormon Church.

Let me be very clear. I'm no expert on religion. Certainly I'm no expert on Mormonism. Nor am I a social scientist. I have no particular expertise in anything relevant to what I'm reporting and discussing here. What I have is surprise, embarassment, and maybe a bit of shame.

So what we (I) know (believe) about most (not all, but most) Mormons is that they're deeply conservative (rigid, unfeeling, repressive) on social issues. We know that because they they are seriously right wing Republicans who support the death penalty and oppose abortion and gay rights.

Did I mention that we (I) are wrong. At least in part. Maybe.

Because here's the news out of the Great Salt Lake. As of Tuesday night, AP reports, Salt Lake City is gay friendly. The city counsel voted to
prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the two new ordinances, it is illegal to fire someone from their job or evict someone from their residence because they are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender.
Did I mention that council's vote was unanimous. That's astounding folks. And how did it happen? It happened because the Mormon Church said it was the right thing to do.

"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Michael Otterson, the director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said.

OK, there's still that equal marriage rights thing. But, as the Virginia Slims ads used to say, "You've come a long way, baby."

See, it's as risky to stereotype from my side of the aisle as from yours.

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