I, like many of us here at PB, love This American Life. Last week’s episode was a repeat of one that I missed when it aired a year ago: “Got You Pegged.” Like most TAL episodes, they pick one theme and tell a few stories that fit into that theme. The episode description calls it: “stories about the pitfalls of making snap judgments about others.”
Act One, “The Fat Blue Line” is a “tale taken from real life, and dramatized” by Richard Price, novelist and screenwriter for film and television (including that one show…what’s it called? Oh, right. The Wire.) Now I’m not sure if Ira and Co. posted this on purpose in the aftermath of Gatesgate, but it seems fitting.
In the story, Price describes a ridealong with police in a fake cab who treat Delancey Street in New York as a “fishing hole.” As in, “if someone who has an afro or a ponytail” rides by the cops, they get tailed. Around midnight, the officers see a black man riding a bike with a young white kid sitting on the handlebars. They agree that it “looks fishy,” and stop the man. They separate him from the kid, and question each of them. Price floats between the two conversations.
It’s an absurd tale, sad and funny, and the audience members (and I) laugh through much of it. Until Price gets to the part where the cop questioning the kid tries to ask without asking whether the black man molests him. And then it gets sad and frustrating. I don’t want to give it all away — you should listen to it on the site; the story begins at 8:12 and runs about 12 minutes — but it’s clear that the man’s relationship with the kid is on the up and up. Not that it matters to the police.
This is a clear cut case of racial profiling. And even though the black man in the story did everything the “right” way — his reaction to this episode would please those who would’ve had Henry Louis Gates look at the ground and end every sentence with “yessir, Officer” — his demeanor didn’t ease the cops’ suspicions, and it won’t prevent him from being stopped and questioned and humiliated again for bullshit reasons.