The Personalist Project

The other day I ran into a piece of natural common ground shared by two kinds of people--homeschooling religious types and young black men--who, according to stereotypes, are supposed to be on opposite sides.

The quote is from the blog DarwinCatholic, about the author's experience of being reported to Child Protective Services. (His toddler was briefly out of his sight, and a passing stranger anonymously reported the family to CPS and the police, too, making no attempt at personal contact first).

He writes:

This has given me a deeper sympathy for the way in which people who are frequently profiled by the police develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general.

It wasn't a question of just investigating the particular suspicious circumstances, either.

This was essentially a stop and frisk of the whole family, the whole house, our whole lives. [...] Within moments it was clear that we do not have a chronic problem with children playing dangerously or wandering the neighborhood. However, the law and state policy require the social worker to dig into everything: How do we handle arguments? How do we relax? Do I ever drink? How do we punish the kids? Where do the kids sleep? What do they eat? What chores do they do?

Their whole approach to family life was presumed guilty until proved innocent, and he sees a connection to police policy:

It's wrong and corrosive to the social fabric to stop people at random on the streets to see if they have weapons or drugs. It's wrong to conduct deep searches of their cars and persons just to see if they might be doing something illegal. It's wrong to subject a family to this kind of scrutiny in ways that have no relation to the "offense" reported.

He clarifies:

I don't blame the people we dealt with, who were as nice and accommodating as their jobs allow them to be, but I do blame our laws and our society. We have bad laws and a society in which people think they're doing some kind of a good deed to call down the heavy hand of the law on each other over the tiniest thing. 

And I want to clarify, too: in some cases--and in some states, apparently--CPS is too prone to invade a person's life without cause. I've seen it happen. This is not only painful and disruptive; it generates all kinds of ongoing legal headaches and heightens suspicion on both sides.

But in other cases--whether because of overload or negligence--CPS allows children to remain in obvious danger. Living near Detroit for a decade has convinced me that yes, this does happen.

I'm not claiming the expertise to judge which is more prevalent. And I want to make as clear as humanly possible that my focus is not on CPS vs. parents or police vs. Blacks. Who could possibly imagine that what internet needs now is one more blogger's opinion on any of that? What I'm interested in is the personalist (or anti-personalist) implications of all of us moving among our fellow human beings and regarding them--and being regarded by them--as guilty until proven innocent. 

Policemen and security guards, of course, have to profile people. If you're taking your shift at the 7-Eleven and you're advised to be on the lookout for a young Hispanic male, you can't waste time treating every elderly Caucasian female with equal vigilance. You have to ask yourself: Does this person fit the description or does he not?

But here's what can happen: "fitting the description" can get treated as a crime in its own right. This might seem too obvious to mention, but plenty of people blur the line. For example, when a policeman shoots a man who turns out to be innocent but who fit the description of the guilty party, it's relevant that he "fits the description," sure. It's evidence that the cop wasn't just randomly, arbitrarily shooting an innocent man. It affects the level of subjective responsibility of the culprit.

But it doesn't mean the victim was even slightly guilty of anything at all.

However, profiling people--judging them according to "the description"--in everyday life, is also disastrous. It's the disease--or the exacerbation of the disease-- masquerading as the cure.

As the toddler's parents found out, it's probably a good thing to see things from the perspective of the profil-ee--the one who "fits the description"--once in a while. As the blogger notes, it caused him to "develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general." And that made it easier to see why often-profiled people might be suspicious and defensive.  Suspicion begets suspicion. Treating someone as guilty until proven innocent begets being treated that way yourself. 

And proving innocence is nearly impossible. Pretty soon nobody trusts anybody until they've done the nearly-impossible. We all feel justified in hair-trigger judgments and even hair-trigger violence.

Once again, labeling persons and lumping them together seems like the only practical approach. And once again--just as in evangelization, education, patient care, mental health, and all truly human interaction, it leads to nothing but dead ends.

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