The message, shared in a nearby neighborhood Facebook group, raised alarms:
Please be aware of your surroundings. There was a strange vehicle that followed us in the neighborhood. He lingered in the whole area, almost as if he was “scoping” the neighborhood suspiciously. I spoke with another passerby who also thought the same. I decided to call the County Sheriff and report the incident. What to look for:
* Dodge grey 4-door
* License [REDACTED] (talked with sheriff & license is not registered)
* African American male w/ slender face (he looked away from me when I looked at him as if to avoid face identification)
* I do have 2 videos of the vehicle
* Witness stated that he drove all the way down [Family Name’s] driveway and eventually drove out and all around the neighborhood. He circled some of it twice.
* Appeared like he was looking at yards
* Was driving & parking throughout witnesses walk into the neighborhood (sic), all the way to the end, and most of the way out
There has been increased thefts during this time. Please keep watch for everyone’s safety! If you want more information please free to contact me! Was very suspicious and gave us a creepy feeling….
Someone in the neighborhood Facebook group responded to the message. They had ordered burritos from Chipotle and the driver was delivering their burritos. Case closed!
Let’s take a deeper look at the message now that we know the driver was trying to find the house that had ordered burritos. Before we do that, let me share two other bits of information about the neighborhood:
- The neighborhood is in an area that is nearly (or maybe exactly) 100% white.
- The way some of the house numbers are arrayed in this particular neighborhood seem out of sequence . This causes confusion for visitors.
The vehicle was “strange” and it “followed us”
Maybe, in this case, “strange” means “a car I’ve not seen before in our neighborhood.” But once we hear it “followed” the driver we sense that something more sinister might be at play. What could it be?
The driver was “an African American male”
I think we’re getting to the crux of the issue here.
The driver “lingered in the whole area, almost as if he was ‘scoping’ the neighborhood suspiciously”
There’s a lot of projection here. In a neighborhood used to visiting drivers driving slowly, stopping, turning around and then turning around again due to the weird numbers, this driver was “lingering”. My guess is if the driver had been white he would have been described as looking “lost”. But instead this black driver was “lingering” – and not only lingering but he seemed to linger in a way that was “almost as if he was scoping” the neighborhood (with the redundant adverb “suspiciously” added to the end of the sentence for good measure).
“Appeared he was looking at yards”
Or he was lost and looking at addresses.
“I have two videos of the vehicle”
I don’t know about you, but if I were the only black guy driving around in a white neighborhood I might be a bit nervous, and I’d be even more nervous if someone was following me and taking photos and videos.
Since it is easier to see the splinter in my neighbor’s eye and miss the wooden beam in my own, I need to acknowledge that the same process of pre-judging (“prejudice”) I can so easily see in the neighborhood message is something I do as a well but see less clearly. During this time of renewed awareness of the challenges our black and brown fellow citizens face, confronting and acknowledging the daily indignities felt by people like the Chipotle driver – an “African American Male” who “looked away” from a lady who was following him, staring at him, and taking videos – is more important than ever.
As I have been reading and thinking about these issues, I picked up and started reading a book this past weekend that has been sitting on my stack of books-to-be-read. I’m better for having done so.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD is a blend of science, investigative reporting, and reflections on the author’s personal experiences with bias. Dr. Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and is a cofounder and co-director of SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions). Among the many jewels in the book is a section on the topic of racial profiling on the social networking service Nextdoor, where one of the categories is “crime and safety.”
From a study guide/overview I received with the book, the Nextdoor team realized
…there were too many posts with racist overtones, messages that labeled blacks and Latinos “suspicious” for just walking down a street, sitting in a car, talking on a cell phone, or knocking on a door. As one of the founders told Dr. Eberhardt, “most people weren’t consciously racial profiling….They just knew when they seen something that made them uncomfortable and compelled them, for safety’s sake, to share it.”
This is exactly what we see in the last line of the neighborhood warning I shared above: “Was very suspicious and gave us a creepy feeling….”. Because the writer felt “creepy,” and because the actions of the unfortunate burrito driver looked “suspicious” (filtered through racial stereotype), the neighbor felt compelled to report it to the neighborhood.
The Nextdoor team began studying bias and the techniques that would enable users to continue to flag danger when they see it, but would protect people from unfair targeting.
The answer? Slow people down.
The Nexdoor team realized that our personal technology encourages speed, and speed often removes the filter and judgement necessary to make a wise decision (see Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow). So they developed this checklist of three reminders that people have to click through before they can post about a “suspicious person”:
- Focus on behavior. What was the person doing that concerned you, and how does it relate to a possible crime?
- Give a full description, including clothing, to distinguish between similar people. Consider unintended consequences if the description is so vague that an innocent person could be targeted.
- Don’t assume criminality based on someone’s race or ethnicity. Racial profiling is expressly prohibited.
Just by slowing people down, Nextdoor reduced the incidences of racial profiling by 75%. They even adapted it for international use, with customized filters for European countries.
In many ways, the speed of personal technology is a great thing. But in other ways – such as “suspicious person” reports and cable “news” amplification – speed works against us.
Seeing and acknowledging the role implicit bias plays in impeding our fellow citizens from realizing their full potential is on all of us. Those of us who have benefited from a lifetime of racial privilege move toward our own full potential when we stop and acknowledge the many ways in which we have benefitted.
I’m under no illusion that we’ll arrive at some post-racial Shangri-La because of reading a few books, virtue signaling through social media posts, or writing a blog post like this one. But as the addiction self-help groups know, the first step toward resolution is admitting you have a problem.
We have a problem. We can do better.