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Skin deep: Colin Kaepernick, Michael Brown and the problem of profiling

  Colin Kaepernick in action against the Green Bay Packers in 2012. Photograph by Mike Morebeck

Colin Kaepernick in action against the Green Bay Packers in 2012. Photograph by Mike Morebeck

At first glance, Colin Kaepernick and Michael Brown would seem to be as far apart as San Francisco and Ferguson, Mo. But in a week in which Brown became yet another unarmed young black man killed by a police officer, Kaepernick was telling Bleacher Report why he thinks he’s criticized as the 49ers quarterback:

"Stereotypes, prejudice," Kaepernick told Bleacher Report when asked about the criticism. “Whatever you want to call it. I think between the tattoos, the way I dress, the way I talk. People don't think it should go together with a franchise quarterback or someone that's leading the team or representing the organization. At the end of the day, you have to look at, 'Are they knowledgeable? Are they doing their job?' Not what their appearance is."

Appearances were on the mind of Sen. Rand Paul, who wrote a piece for Time magazine in which he talked about the fact that as a white kid mouthing off, he wouldn’t have expected to be shot. 

“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” Paul wrote. “This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.”

You know you have a problem when libertarians like Paul and liberals are on the same side of an issue. And profiling – which runs the gamut from workplace discrimination to fatal police confrontations – is a problem, a complex one, hard-wired into our DNA, I think. Our ancestors’ lives depended on their ability to make snap judgments based on appearances, lest they be eaten by wild animals. The modern world may be less urgent, but certain professions retain a life-and-death dimension. One of them is police work. Imagine a job in which you don’t know if you’ll come home at the end of your shift or if you’ll wind up maimed or paralyzed. It’s not a job I could do.

Even if you’re a guard in a museum, you’re seeing thousands of people each day. From your perspective, it’s more efficient to move along those who are statistically speaking not responsible for crimes – the kids, the seniors, the ladies. Young guys, particularly young men of color, not so much.

Yet what if you’re one of those young men, minding his own business?

Or you get into a jam but you’re not carrying? Should you be penalized, even killed, because history and circumstances aren’t on your side?

In “Water Music” and “In This Place You Hold Me” – the first two novels in my series, “The Games Men Play” – athletes Alí Iskandar and Quinn Novak respectively discover what it means to be dark and other in American society. And they come to understand that when you’re part of two worlds, you end up belonging to neither.

What’s the solution to profiling? Clearly, it’s something we shouldn’t be doing. But it’s not that simple, particularly when people feel threatened.

And yet, we must find a solution.

Because we can’t go on like this.