Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Black Man, a White Man, and a Brown Man walk into a.....

by Pat Brown

Most of us are a bit sick of arguing about the Gates/Crowley racial profiling incident, but now Bob Dylan and Shahrukh Khan have made headlines in two similar incidents, and it is truly worth comparing the three events.

Bob Dylan was wandering around a New Jersey neighborhood when he experienced "Walking while White." A woman called the police when she saw a suspiciously acting man on her front lawn in the pouring rain. When the police showed up, Dylan was walking down the street, a public street. The police stopped him and asked him for an ID. He could not produce one. The police officer asked him his name, and he told her Bob Dylan. She didn't believe him. Why would a famous singer be all alone, soaking wet, looking for houses for sale in a rainstorm? Why would he be wearing two raincoats? The police officer, Kristie Buble, figured the guy was likely a mental patient from a nearby hospital.

I think that was a valid suspicion. I ran into Obama's "cousin" the other day at CNN. She was on the lobby phone, the one guests of the show use in the evening to contact security to come down and bring us up. My hit time had been moved up, and I needed to get upstairs quickly and the woman was talking and talking on the phone. Another man had entered the building at the same time; he could see she was having a problem with whomever she was speaking, so he asked if he could help. She told us she was Obama's cousin and had just come from Providence Hospital after being treated for an injury (she had a bandage on her ankle and a plastic band around her wrist). She had an East African accent and told us she needed to get upstairs. She pointed to the curb through the glass front doors and told us she had a limo waiting for her. There was one at the curb.

Now, the gentleman with me believed the woman was Obama's cousin. He was a kindhearted man and told her he would take her upstairs. I was standing behind her, waving my hands at the man and mouthing "Noooooo!" I called upstairs and security came down and "helped" the woman.

The man asked me how I knew the woman wasn't Obama's cousin. First off, I just couldn't see why Obama's cousin wouldn't have a better way to get into CNN than beg from the lobby. Secondly, I didn't see why she wanted to talk to someone there after all the major people had gone home for the day. Also, the woman came from Providence Hospital, not exactly a top hospital, and no one goes there if they have better options; the hospital usually serves the poor. Finally, there is a homeless shelter just a few blocks away, and anyone who knows the area near Union Station in DC is aware that a lot of panhandlers and mentally unstable people hang in the vicinity.

Of course, Obama had an aunt who was an illegal alien and lived in a housing project, so who knows, the woman could have been telling the truth, but having reasonable suspicion when someone says or does strange things should not be considered unfair treatment or racial profiling.

I don't think Officer Buble can be faulted for questioning Bob Dylan as he not only was a scruffy, bedraggled white guy in the Latin quarter of town, but a citizen called in because he had trespassed on someone's property. A person acting suspiciously, possibly committing a crime, is then asked for an ID and cannot produce one. Furthermore, the person behaving strangely claims to be a big shot. Does Dylan's story sound just like Gates? You bet! The only difference is Gates got nasty and Dylan was polite. Gates ended up in handcuffs and Dylan got a ride back to his hotel in order to prove who he was. That Officer Buble even did that is pretty impressive. So, to me, neither citizen/police interaction was an example of racial profiling.

However, now we have one. All over the headlines in the last couple of days is a much more troubling incident. Shahrukh Khan, known as the King of Bollywood, megastar famous the world over (except here in the US) was flying to New Jersey to attend an Indian Independence Day celebration. He got stopped by the Newark immigration folks and grilled for what he says was two hours (they say it was only a little over an hour). Shahrukh said he "felt angry and humiliated by the experience and believes he was stopped because of his Muslim surname." After a bit of time passed and Shahrukh had time for his raw emotions to settle, he gave this statement: "I think it's a procedure that needs to be followed, but an unfortunate procedure."

Now, anyone who knows me knows that if I worked Newark security at the airport I would have detained Shahrukh Khan for a much longer time and I would have locked the door. But that is beside the point. The question is, with concern for national security and the safety of airline passengers, was it unreasonable to detain Mr. Khan, and what should have been the red flags that would cause him to be pulled aside, grilled, and told he couldn't make a phone call? Many, including Indians, say this secondary security procedure is common, and Shahrukh Khan should not be exempt just because he is a movie star.

Okay, I agree with this to a degree. There have been movie stars involved in terrorist activities.

Sanjay Dutt, a very popular Indian actor, was sentenced in 2007 to six years in prison for illegally procuring weapons for the 1993 Mumbai train bombings. So, no one is beyond questioning. But I would hope anyone who is detained and questioned would have this occur because there was a true red flag that went up for some reason. I remember reporting a burning tire in a park in my neighborhood, waiting until the police arrived and then immediately being asked if I set the fire! I remember being incensed that this was the thanks I got for trying to prevent a dangerous fire that might spread to homes in the area. I could see nothing about my report or my appearance that should have made the officer suspicious. I felt humiliated that I had to defend myself and prove myself innocent when I had acted properly and honorably.

I believe Shahrukh Khan acted quite decently as well. He is not the type of man to cause a ruckus; he is a personable, very polite man. He is Muslim but does not toss out prayer rugs in the airport; he is married to a Hindu woman. He is terribly honest and open and has a sense of humor about himself (Read my past post about Shahrukh Khan on Women in Crime Ink). So, I don't believe he did anything to cause problems. What then was the red flag?

I would have to agree with Shahrukh that he was detained simply because his name was Khan. Ironically, Shahrukh was on a publicity tour for his new movie, My Name is Khan, a film about racial profiling post 9/11! He isn't the only Khan to believe this is true. Another Bollywood actor, Zayed Khan, says that when he has traveled with a large group of people of varying nationalities and religions, he is the guy who gets pulled aside and questioned.

I know there are certain things that flag travelers for further scrutiny. I find that if I wear a suit and carry a briefcase I am far more likely to be pulled over and have my carry-ons rummaged through than if I wear a flowered sundress and carry a straw bag. They must have their reasons. And I suppose the reasoning used with Shahrukh and all the other Khans is that a Khan is more likely to blow up an airplane than a Sonnenburger or a Chung. But I think that is probably little comfort to the many Khans who are detained on religion alone and not because of behavior.

One can argue that Muslims should routinely be detained while traveling; for officials to say that wasn't the reason Shahrukh Khan was held is ridiculous. Of course it was. There were no behaviors that were concerning, his passport was in order, and he didn't have any weapons on him. He was detained because he was Muslim. This is a fact.

If the United States is going to do this, then they ought to admit it. Racial profiling is occurring at airports and we should confess that this is true. We should simply say that since 9/11, we have been very unnerved about terrorism, and since the terrorism against us has largely been by Muslims, we require Muslims traveling to our country to receive extra scrutiny. We apologize for the inconvenience and we feel sad that so many honorable Muslims must go through this procedure because of a small number of extremists.

I think if we were honest and polite in our dealings, Shahrukh Khan may not have been so offended by the actions of the officials. Sometimes we may be forced to profile by sex, race, or religion, but we should have the backbone to admit that is what we are doing.

I personally love strong security for airline travel, but I think the overly aggressive profiling of anyone with a Muslim name is unsettling. At least there should be some concerning behaviors as well. A black man seen in a white neighborhood should not be stopped unless he is also running down the street with a television on his shoulders. A white man should not be stopped in a black neighborhood unless he is seen trying to jimmy a door open with a screwdriver. And a brown man should not be stopped at airport security unless he is looking around nervously, muttering the word "bomb", or telling his friend he just got an email from wanted terrorist Dawood Ibrahim.

I also am expecting Obama to invite Shahrukh to the White House for ... well, for a Diet Pepsi, since Khan is a Muslim.


California Girl said...

Interesting that Khan was promoting a movie about racial profiling. Great publicity stunt.

Pat Brown said...

It may sound that way, but this is not likely with Khan.

Anonymous said...

If I was Officer Buble, I woulda asked Mr Dylan to sing me a song. Something like 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' or 'Buckets of Rain' or 'Highwater' or maybe 'Hurricane.' And there's always 'Rainy Day Woman' or 'Man On The Street.'

Anonymous said...

OK.. I am going to be the tacky one with no real comment but...
I would get a job at my airport just to have Mr. Kahn fly in to be strip searched.. WOW!!
I know this probably won't get published since it really has nothing to do with the story (I thought the story was great too) but I needed to say it anyway.


Pat Brown said...

As someone said on my Facebook page when I made my comment about increasing the interrogation time behind locked doors, "I bet there will be a long line of women waiting outside that interrogation room for their turn!

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Janet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gracie said...

I thought about having Dylan sing, too. But if the officer were young and unfamiliar with Dylan, she might not even recognize the song. All she'd hear would be a voice matching Dylan's face, attire, and behavior.

Pat Brown said...

I am old(er) and stll couldn't recognize a Dylan song! Wasn't my style of music even if Bob Dylan was popular during my younger years.

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