Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Thoughts on Practical Ethics and Privilege

By Dan Randazzo

Last week, I surprised a burglar who had come into my house.

My spouse had just left the house. I was still home, as I was going to be working from home today. My spouse hadn’t locked the back door. I was sitting in my bedroom, when I heard footsteps on the stairs. I looked up, and then suddenly saw this large face peer into my room. I yelled, jumped out of the bed, and started to run after him. The burglar ran out of the house while I chased after him, yelling with some rather incoherent anger. At that moment, I didn't feel violated. Instead, I felt ANGRY; my thoughts followed the general theme that this is MY house, MY sanctuary, and how DARE you invite yourself in!

There's been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. It seems as if my area of Baltimore is being targeted by a group of people who are looking for houses where people are likely to have good “stuff,” and where people aren't likely to be home during the day.

I called my spouse immediately after I ensured that the person had left (as he admittedly had, and in a hurry), and she asked me if I was going to call the police. At this point, between the shock and adrenaline, I also felt an unusual constellation of ethical conundrums emerge.

For one, the man that I saw was definitely African-American. I questioned whether I should call the police with a very vague description of what was effectively a random African-American male. I truly didn't know anything else besides that. I definitely saw an African-American male who was wearing a grey t-shirt, dark boots, and dark gloves; that was the entirety of my memory of the person. I thought that if I told this description to the police, they might do exactly what they would up doing: canvassing the neighborhood, stopping anyone walking along who might fit this very vague description.

The white male police officer who left my house to canvass the neighborhood found a person who fit this very general description. The other officer, who was still in my living room, asked me to jump into the back of his cruiser in order to drive over and determine if this was the burglar. As I'm staring out the windows of a police cruiser (nevermind that I'm still wearing my pajamas, and have not even had a cup of coffee yet . . . and I'm sitting in the back of a police cruiser), I tell the police officer that I honestly just can't tell. How could I? I was surprised in bed with a split-second look. Yet, my vague description started this entire process, eventually leading to two police officers detaining a person who might have been the burglar . . . and might also just have been walking along the sidewalk.

A number of questions all popped into my head at once. What privileges am I accessing by demanding that the police come to my house to find someone who I can't even describe effectively? Does this situation say anything general about “white privilege”? What does this say about institutionalised racism and structural violence? Does it say anything . . . or is it basic, that I was attempting to ensure the safety and security of others by stopping a burglar from harming others? I wasn’t certain that I had any answers to those questions that morning, and I'm still uncertain that I have any helpful answers now.

Situations like this can cause people to question their safety, and then to reassess their previous choices in order to more properly ensure their security in the future. They might decide to lock their doors even when they are in the house, or even to install a security system and bars on the windows. I wonder, however: do all these measures actually make them, or me, more secure? What do we all give up in order to feel more secure? Are we being proactively and soberly cautious, or are we effectively barricading ourselves in our houses?

I stand by my choice to do that I did everything that I was 'supposed' to do: I called the police, I assisted them with their investigation to the best of my abilities, and complied with their every request. Yet, I still feel challenged by the options that were available to me. All that I felt that I achieved that morning was in adding to the layers of suspicion that African-American males struggle with every day, especially in Baltimore. If I could have given the police a more effective description, a fingerprint, a footprint, anything useful other than “African-American male wearing clothing,” then maybe I might feel as if my phone call achieved something productive. I recognize that police work is slow, and often requires sifting through a massive volume of useless “noise,” information that's not helpful or relevant to the case. My efforts might eventually lead to the person(s) responsible for these break-ins. Yet, they just as easily might not, and I might have just utilized the privilege available to me as a white person, without any “productive” result.

I'm frustrated also by the immediate assumption that 'practical' concerns demand that we make our houses fortresses. I'm struggling with the assumption that if anyone chafes at the measures available for ensuring security, that person must not care for their own safety or that of their family. Aren't there more creative alternatives that a person could utilize to make their house less of a target? Also, what about the unavoidable and unpleasant truth that if someone wants to enter your house, they will eventually find a way in? It seems as if there really isn't a foolproof solution . . . just a jumble of unsatisfying choices.

Dan Randazzo is an adjunct professor in theology and a PhD Candidate in Quaker Theology in Baltimore, Maryland.

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