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Who's guilty of racial profiling? All of us

It's time to tell some tough truths about racial profiling.

Cops do it. And, in a real sense, we all do it.Cops commit what is commonly called "racial profiling" whenever they stop motorists for traffic violations or stop individuals for questioning -- not because of anything suspicious the person has done but simply because of his or her appearance. And, mainly, race.

But racial profiling and stereotyping doesn't stop there. The difficult truth is that we all have been guilty of racial profiling at one time or another. We commit a version of racial profiling whenever we make certain assumptions about whether a person walking toward us on a sidewalk might cause us harm -- not because of anything suspicious the person has done but simply because of his or her appearance. And, mainly, race.

First, the cops. New Jersey is the latest media flashpoint for explosive revelations and accusations of racial profiling by police. But similar evidence of racial profiling by police has been reported in California, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In New Jersey, a recent analysis by The Star Ledger newspaper based in Newark of 1,154 arrests showed that 79 percent of motorists on the New Jersey Turnpike who were taken into custody by state police were minorities. African Americans made up 62 percent of the arrests; whites, 21 percent.

It is against that backdrop of official discrimination that an East Orange, N.J., police sergeant, DeLacey Davis, has made a name for himself by giving practical advice in a race-profiling world. A profile of Davis on the Fox television network news magazine show, "Fox Files," last week, showed that he is viewed as heroic by blacks yet as controversial by many of his fellow cops -- all because of speeches he gives. Davis tells audiences of young black males how to avoid being unfairly brutalized by the police if they are stopped while in a vehicle or walking.

The police officer's message is basic: Don't create trouble for yourself. Don't give an officer any reason to think you might reach for a weapon or start a fight. If you are stopped in a vehicle at night, turn on the interior light and keep your hands in clear sight. He lectures in straight-talking street talk and admits cops can make mistakes, even be unfair -- and that cops certainly use racial profiling.

But perhaps the most telling case study is not about New Jersey but Maryland. In 1992, state police reportedly illegally searched and detained a black lawyer, Robert L. Wilkins. The officers said in their defense that they were following department guidelines, which targeted black males who drove expensive cars. That, of course, could apply to some of the state's most prominent residents -- successful businessmen, lawyers, doctors. Maryland settled the suit and agreed to keep data on the racial heritage of motorists whose vehicles police searched.

But those records showed a continuing pattern that Maryland's NAACP called discrimination in filing a class-action suit. Documents filed in the case showed that from 1995 to 1997, blacks accounted for just 17 percent of all motorists on Interstate 95 in Maryland -- but 77 percent of the drivers whose cars police stopped and searched were minorities.

Most of us can see that this public, official stereotyping by police is hideously unfair. But the truth is that most of us now and then make private, unofficial assumptions that are also hideously unfair.

Here's an example that people who are whites, blacks and Hispanics have told me represents what they have done or thought on occasion:

It is late at night. We are walking down a city sidewalk and see walking toward us two youths dressed in baggy jeans and shirts. Now, be honest: Regardless of your own race, is it true that if these youths are whites, you might feel comfortable and continue on your course? But if the youths are blacks, you might feel apprehension that the youths might intend to harm you? Have there been times when you have crossed to the other side of the street, a sign of fear that the oncoming minority youths surely recognize?

It's a feeling that whites, blacks and Hispanics concede they have all felt as they saw oncoming young minority males.

Racial profiling is unacceptable and illegal as a police policy. It is unpalatable yet sadly frequent as a gesture of self-protection by which we police our private lives.

Martin Schram writes a weekly column that focuses on the intersection of the news media, policy and politics