Last month neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was arrested in the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager, in Florida. Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking through his gated community, followed him and shot him. He claims it was in self-defense after Trayvon attacked him. In March, two Pasadena police officers shot and killed Kendrec McDade, an unarmed 19-year-old black college student. Police were responding to a 911 call in which the victim said he was robbed at gunpoint, but he lied about the suspects having a gun. After discussing these cases, L.A. Youth writers shared their experiences with racial profiling.
I’ve been misjudged just for being a black male
I used to feel like my mom didn’t trust me when I left the house. She wouldn’t let me wear a big chain around my neck and she was worried about who I hung out with. “You don’t have to do anything wrong for something to happen to you,” my mom would say. And I had a friend whose mom wouldn’t let her go to house parties. I felt like this was unfair. But since talking to my mom after the Trayvon Martin shooting, I realized that it’s not that our parents didn’t trust us, it’s that they didn’t trust other people.
My mom is strict because she doesn’t want me to get harassed by gang bangers or drug dealers or to get robbed on the bus and or end up getting shot and killed for no apparent reason like Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon was walking around in a hoodie; it was a rainy night when he ended up shot to death. My mom said that if I were to wear a big chain, cops and gang members might harass me or target me just for looking like a gang member.
Even doing what my mom says, I’ve been harassed. Once when I was walking to school last year, I had my hood up and a police officer asked me to remove my hood. I was nervous, because when a cop stops me—a young black male in South L.A.—it makes me think, “What does he think I did?” Once I removed it he said, “I just had to make sure you didn’t fit the description.” After that I saw him ask another kid to remove his hood even though it was a different color than mine. I didn’t know whether this cop didn’t know what color hoodie to be looking for or whether he was just giving me a hard time because I’m a young black male.
And that was not the only time I felt like people have made assumptions. About a year ago, I was walking through a grocery store parking lot to my mom’s car at night. As I was passing by another car in the lot, I heard the click of the doors locking even though no one had gotten out. The people inside were assuming that because I’m black I might be coming to break into their car and rob them. I always feel sad when something like this happens. I am not a thug. I’m a college-bound student with a 3.3 GPA. It’s really messed up. How can this be so common today in our world?
—Maceo Bradley, 17, Animo Locke HS #3
I’m embarrassed that a hoodie triggered my fears
These past few months, stories about the fatal shootings of unarmed black teens Kendrec McDade and Trayvon Martin have been appearing everywhere—on television, online and in discussions at school. While learning more about the Trayvon Martin shooting, I read transcripts of the calls George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon, made to police in the years before the shooting. Six calls referred to suspicious black males. And an unarmed black male who was wearing a hoodie and carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles ended up dead. How could this NOT be a race thing?
I wondered, “How could people be so narrow-minded? How can people base their views on the color of one’s skin or the clothing someone wears?” I was angry at people who judge others solely on skin color or clothing, and believed I was nothing like them.
A few weeks later, I was at school around 8 or 9 p.m. I had been at a computer programming class and after it was over I was walking around the parking lot waiting for my mother to pick me up. A man wearing a dark hoodie stood nearby with his back to a wall.
Several minutes later, I started feeling nervous. I noticed that the man was staring in my direction. My suspicion rose, and to my shame, the fact that he was black actually scared me. At a predominantly Asian school like Walnut, I thought, shouldn’t I be at least a little cautious around someone who looks as if he “doesn’t belong”?
He shuffled his hands around in his pockets. I thought he might take a weapon out. That was enough to make me quickly walk back to the classroom, and tell my teacher that someone outside was making me nervous. “I don’t think he’s supposed to be here, could you …?” I stopped abruptly, afraid to admit why I was scared. My teacher gave me a strange look, but came outside with me.
As we went outside, I walked behind my teacher, trying to hide. Imagine my shock when I saw the two men shake hands and begin talking to each other. It turned out the man was the parent of the class’s teaching assistant, and he was waiting to pick her up.
I was incredibly embarrassed as my teacher explained and casually joked with the man about me being scared. Thankfully, the man didn’t take any offense.
I had discriminated unfairly against a man just because of his race. Even though my parents had taught me always to be cautious around strangers, was the reason I was afraid still valid? Wasn’t I acting similarly to Zimmerman when he saw Trayvon Martin?
The main thing I learned here is that I shouldn’t make assumptions about someone just because he’s wearing a hoodie or is black. But doing this won’t be easy. I don’t want to make judgements about anyone I meet, but I also want to keep myself safe.
—Andrew Chen, 15, Walnut HS
I’ve profiled people without even realizing it
I’ve grown up with friends of all races. Even though I know I’m not racist, I do something that almost everyone does without meaning too—I profile people based on their race. At first, I wasn’t sure why but then I realized that one of the reasons was because of the media. In movies when a robber breaks into someone’s house, it’s usually a male with facial hair who is either Hispanic or black, wearing dark clothing. So, when I’m home alone and I see a group of men that fit this profile hanging around my street near a car, I admit that I am more cautious and I take the time to lock the doors. I feel a little bit guilty because I feel like I’m assuming things that I shouldn’t.
One time when I was about 13, I was at home during the evening with my sister and we heard a knock on our door. We looked through the door and saw that it was two men, one black and one Hispanic. They weren’t doing anything suspicious, but we automatically knew to not open the door, though we didn’t even know what they wanted. I wonder if we would have opened the door had it been two females, or perhaps men of a different race. Looking back, it makes sense to me why I didn’t open the door because the men were strangers, but I wish that it didn’t have to be like that, me not opening the door partially due to their race.
I still don’t consider myself racist, because I have friends from all over the world. However, I have realized I profile people based on their race, though definitely not intentionally. It’s something that I want to work on, because it’s not fair to myself or to the people around me. I would never want someone to assume something about me simply based on the color of my skin.
—Camille Didelot-Hearn, 15, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
It’s difficult to balance trying to be safe and not profiling people
Until an L.A. Youth meeting a couple months ago, I thought I had never profiled anyone. But after this meeting, I realized that I had made an assumption about someone based on clothing.
About two years ago, I was walking on the San Gabriel bike trail, and it was close to dusk. There was no one around me. However, I turned a corner and saw a hooded figure approaching. This person (I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman) was about a quarter of a mile from me, but he/she was huddled over what appeared to be a package. I wasn’t afraid, but rather more curious about what this person was carrying. My father has always encouraged me to be observant and cautious of my surroundings, especially when I’m alone.
But then I started to feel a sliver of discomfort because I couldn’t see this person’s face and I was alone. I briefly wondered whether he would hurt me. Once our paths crossed, I looked up and saw that it was an elderly man. He appeared to be huffing while walking, as if walking made him tired.
I felt immediate shame. How could I judge another person when I didn’t know him? It was his posture that had made me nervous. I usually don’t see people walk hunched over. The hoodie covering his face made me uncomfortable.
I can forgive myself for doing this, because I was trying to protect myself. But if I find myself in a similar situation in the future, I hope that I will act differently. I will still be observant but I won’t automatically associate suspicious behavior with the posture a person adopts or what they are wearing. However, I know that one day I might get suspicious of someone’s appearance, even though my intent is not to make judgments based on appearance. But at least I hope that I will give myself space to calm down and not just assume that person intends to hurt me.
—Kristy Plaza, 18, Duarte HS