'If you see a white person...say something'

In New York City, where I live, the "If you see something, say something" signs are ubiquitous.  Certainly sound advice, at least in the abstract, as regards the war on terror and criminality.  Unfortunately, in settings obsessing over the feelings of certain minority groups, alerting the authorities about apparent suspicious behavior can be personally risky.  Indeed, save in extreme situations, it's best to keep quiet or quickly flee the scene.

To understand this troubling situation, consider that to the trained eye (particularly police officers' eyes), suspicious behavior is nearly everywhere.  An especially common example is people who appear out of place or at least cannot offer credible explanations for their presence.  How should the police react when encountering at 5:00 A.M. a well dressed German tourist in a black neighborhood notorious for drug-dealers and hookers?  One can only reasonably surmise that absent any compelling explanation, these out-of-place folks are up to no good, an assessment that would justify asking them – perhaps forcefully – to move on lest bad things happen.

Likewise, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers are trained to see suspicious behavior – for example, young men traveling from the Middle East without luggage.  Retail stores on the lookout for shoplifters will closely monitor patrons dressed in heavy, bulky clothing during summer or handling expensive designer garments not in their size.  Israeli airport security scrutinizes people before they enter the terminal for anxious, nervous behavior – repeated looking around, being fidgety, and other tell-tale signs that make them stand out from other travelers. 

Particularly valuable for picking out troublemakers early is "odd" behavior, behavior that somehow intuitively does not fit.  It is difficult to define "odd" behavior legally, but it is not all that hard to sense it.  Remember the Philadelphia blacks in Starbucks?  Retail clerks cannot help but notice a customer who meanders about the store just prior to closing – he's probably waiting until all the customers leave and the clerks will be busy counting the day's cash.

So far, everything is simple.  What complicates this "if you see something..." message is when race and ethnicity enter the picture, plus the existence of organizations that thrive on turning molehills into lucrative mountains thanks to false accusations.  It is one thing to call security when a slovenly dressed white male repeatedly visits Tiffany's asking to handle expensive diamond rings without buying anything, but the same behavior from a poorly dressed black man is not comparable.  Putting "a tail" on the white customer is just prudent security; doing the same for the black "customer" is easily construed as racial profiling, an invitation to public outrage and possible lawsuits.   

Exacerbating this situation is that even when the suspicion appears totally justifiable, the odds of something bad happening are likely to be low.  But, given the huge downside if something bad does occur, a willingness to tolerate false positives is essential.  Better to ruffle a few feathers than risk hundreds (or thousands) dying from terrorism or being a crime victim.

In the final analysis, if you see something and say something about the "wrong" people, you risk charges of racism or Islamophobia, a particularly unfortunate situation, given that when it comes to crime and terrorism, members of these two groups are disproportionate perpetrators.  Put it this way: if you are inclined to call 911 to report suspicious activity, better to watch for elderly white males, no matter how flimsy the threat.  By contrast, if you are sitting in an airport lounge, and you see a group of agitated young Arabic-looking, Arabic-speaking men, hold your tongue, given the minuscule odds of them hijacking a plane.  If the odds are one in five hundred that they will commit a crime, dialing 911 may get you vilified as Islamophobic.

recent incident at Smith College, an upscale women's school, perfectly illustrates what happens when calling security about possible suspicious behavior gone terribly wrong if a black is involved.  The facts are simple: a school custodian alerted campus police when he saw a black student, Oumou Kanoute, eating lunch in a residence hall living room, not the nearby air-conditioned dining room.  To the custodian, this seemed out of place.

Nothing was found out of the ordinary, but the act of "doing something" at the progressive-infused Smith involving a black student set off a lengthy chain of events.  Two lawyers specializing in discrimination and civil rights law were hired to investigate, eleven people were interviewed, pictures were taken of the living room, and social media reports of the incident were examined along with various media accounts.  The charge: this "see something..." call might have violated the school's affirmative action policies, and, as an indication of the charge's seriousness, the custodian was put on administrative leave.

Predictably, an outpouring of outrage from students occurred.  Ms. Kanoute told of her trauma, and some alums expressed horror that a hateful, discriminatory incident could possibly occur on the Smith campus.  The school's president, Kathleen McCartney, acknowledged the student's pain and added that the custodian's call demonstrated that Smith College still has work to do in combatting campus bias. 

Fortunately, the extensive investigation showed that the custodian's actions were not motivated by racial discrimination on the day of the incident (he had never previously called about a person of color).  This incident is hardly unique, and several other colleges have recently seen accusations of comparable racial profiling – namely, Yale UniversityColorado State University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Thankfully, the aggrieved student did not sue Smith for damages, but such financial settlements are just a matter of time.  More important, the outcomes of these false positive "say something" incidents will gain wider circulation, given their potential career-ending impact, and thus few will risk saying anything, save, perhaps, calling about an ongoing shooting.  Why risk your job if the odds of identifying a troublemaking are 500 to 1?  And, conceivably, the word may get out to black criminals that Smith College offers easy pickin's, from shoplifting to sexual assault, since everybody is terrified about reporting anything that might alarm security.

It remains to be seen just how far this trend of selective "say something" will go, but it's unlikely that it will reverse course until it results in a major catastrophe.  (Recall that all the 9/11 hijackers passed airport security.)  We may have to wait until some future Smith co-ed sues her school (and its president, personally) after a brutal rape for failing to supply the most minimal protection when the circumstances clearly required it.  In the meantime, political correctness slowly moves beyond just debating "offensive" language to threatening public safety.

In New York City, where I live, the "If you see something, say something" signs are ubiquitous.  Certainly sound advice, at least in the abstract, as regards the war on terror and criminality.  Unfortunately, in settings obsessing over the feelings of certain minority groups, alerting the authorities about apparent suspicious behavior can be personally risky.  Indeed, save in extreme situations, it's best to keep quiet or quickly flee the scene.

To understand this troubling situation, consider that to the trained eye (particularly police officers' eyes), suspicious behavior is nearly everywhere.  An especially common example is people who appear out of place or at least cannot offer credible explanations for their presence.  How should the police react when encountering at 5:00 A.M. a well dressed German tourist in a black neighborhood notorious for drug-dealers and hookers?  One can only reasonably surmise that absent any compelling explanation, these out-of-place folks are up to no good, an assessment that would justify asking them – perhaps forcefully – to move on lest bad things happen.

Likewise, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers are trained to see suspicious behavior – for example, young men traveling from the Middle East without luggage.  Retail stores on the lookout for shoplifters will closely monitor patrons dressed in heavy, bulky clothing during summer or handling expensive designer garments not in their size.  Israeli airport security scrutinizes people before they enter the terminal for anxious, nervous behavior – repeated looking around, being fidgety, and other tell-tale signs that make them stand out from other travelers. 

Particularly valuable for picking out troublemakers early is "odd" behavior, behavior that somehow intuitively does not fit.  It is difficult to define "odd" behavior legally, but it is not all that hard to sense it.  Remember the Philadelphia blacks in Starbucks?  Retail clerks cannot help but notice a customer who meanders about the store just prior to closing – he's probably waiting until all the customers leave and the clerks will be busy counting the day's cash.

So far, everything is simple.  What complicates this "if you see something..." message is when race and ethnicity enter the picture, plus the existence of organizations that thrive on turning molehills into lucrative mountains thanks to false accusations.  It is one thing to call security when a slovenly dressed white male repeatedly visits Tiffany's asking to handle expensive diamond rings without buying anything, but the same behavior from a poorly dressed black man is not comparable.  Putting "a tail" on the white customer is just prudent security; doing the same for the black "customer" is easily construed as racial profiling, an invitation to public outrage and possible lawsuits.   

Exacerbating this situation is that even when the suspicion appears totally justifiable, the odds of something bad happening are likely to be low.  But, given the huge downside if something bad does occur, a willingness to tolerate false positives is essential.  Better to ruffle a few feathers than risk hundreds (or thousands) dying from terrorism or being a crime victim.

In the final analysis, if you see something and say something about the "wrong" people, you risk charges of racism or Islamophobia, a particularly unfortunate situation, given that when it comes to crime and terrorism, members of these two groups are disproportionate perpetrators.  Put it this way: if you are inclined to call 911 to report suspicious activity, better to watch for elderly white males, no matter how flimsy the threat.  By contrast, if you are sitting in an airport lounge, and you see a group of agitated young Arabic-looking, Arabic-speaking men, hold your tongue, given the minuscule odds of them hijacking a plane.  If the odds are one in five hundred that they will commit a crime, dialing 911 may get you vilified as Islamophobic.

recent incident at Smith College, an upscale women's school, perfectly illustrates what happens when calling security about possible suspicious behavior gone terribly wrong if a black is involved.  The facts are simple: a school custodian alerted campus police when he saw a black student, Oumou Kanoute, eating lunch in a residence hall living room, not the nearby air-conditioned dining room.  To the custodian, this seemed out of place.

Nothing was found out of the ordinary, but the act of "doing something" at the progressive-infused Smith involving a black student set off a lengthy chain of events.  Two lawyers specializing in discrimination and civil rights law were hired to investigate, eleven people were interviewed, pictures were taken of the living room, and social media reports of the incident were examined along with various media accounts.  The charge: this "see something..." call might have violated the school's affirmative action policies, and, as an indication of the charge's seriousness, the custodian was put on administrative leave.

Predictably, an outpouring of outrage from students occurred.  Ms. Kanoute told of her trauma, and some alums expressed horror that a hateful, discriminatory incident could possibly occur on the Smith campus.  The school's president, Kathleen McCartney, acknowledged the student's pain and added that the custodian's call demonstrated that Smith College still has work to do in combatting campus bias. 

Fortunately, the extensive investigation showed that the custodian's actions were not motivated by racial discrimination on the day of the incident (he had never previously called about a person of color).  This incident is hardly unique, and several other colleges have recently seen accusations of comparable racial profiling – namely, Yale UniversityColorado State University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Thankfully, the aggrieved student did not sue Smith for damages, but such financial settlements are just a matter of time.  More important, the outcomes of these false positive "say something" incidents will gain wider circulation, given their potential career-ending impact, and thus few will risk saying anything, save, perhaps, calling about an ongoing shooting.  Why risk your job if the odds of identifying a troublemaking are 500 to 1?  And, conceivably, the word may get out to black criminals that Smith College offers easy pickin's, from shoplifting to sexual assault, since everybody is terrified about reporting anything that might alarm security.

It remains to be seen just how far this trend of selective "say something" will go, but it's unlikely that it will reverse course until it results in a major catastrophe.  (Recall that all the 9/11 hijackers passed airport security.)  We may have to wait until some future Smith co-ed sues her school (and its president, personally) after a brutal rape for failing to supply the most minimal protection when the circumstances clearly required it.  In the meantime, political correctness slowly moves beyond just debating "offensive" language to threatening public safety.