Trayvon Martin was shot dead in February 2012 after George Zimmerman profiled him as a perp. Seconds later, according to his mother’s court testimony, Zimmerman was on the phone screaming for an ambulance: the shooter had modified the fatally wounded teenager’s profile from perp to victim.
Called as a prosecution witness in Zimmerman’s trial (on Saturday night a Florida jury acquitted him of second degree murder after a second day of deliberation), Rachel Jeantal, the 19-year-old friend that Martin was on the phone to shortly before Zimmerman shot him, testified that Martin had told her he was being followed by a ‘creepy-ass cracka’. Zimmerman’s Peruvian descent failed to show in Martin’s instant profile of him: the teenager already had him down as white fright, vigilante material.
Thankfully there are numerous episodes which overturn even the most prevalent profiles. The day after Zimmerman’s acquittal, in Pennsylvania a five-year-old girl was rescued from the clutches of a suspected paedophile by every cracker’s next worst nightmare – two black youths on their BMX-style bikes. But instead of everyone’s iPhone, they snatched Jocelyn Rojas back from the kidnapper and returned her to the bosom of her (pasty-white) mother.
In the UK the latest advert for McDonald’s plays on a similar role reversal. A black teenager and an elderly white man live in different worlds (from the music they listen to – dance band versus dancehall, to the way they hitch their trousers up or down). We are invited to profile them as cultural and/or natural enemies: mutual hostility is in their jeans if not in their genes – along the lines of ex-Marine Michael Caine warring with South London youth in the eponymous film Harry Brown. Only this movie, shot on an East London housing estate by advertising agency Leo Burnett, ends with a twist: sitting down at separate tables, teenager and pensioner clock each other enjoying their burger and fries. Across a crowded food outlet, their eyes meet in a moment of mutuality; against type, ‘we all have McDonald’s in common’.
Welcome though it is, this is a pun on profiling which cannot but confirm its prevalence – even when upside down. Also, apart from the spuriously simple profiles which complicated people regularly project onto other, equally complex individuals, most of us are constantly doing something similar to ourselves. (How complicated is that?) With almost every ‘selfie’, for example, the aim is to upload an image of self in line with the currently available range of clip art personalities. More or less willingly, we’re signing ourselves in as One Dimensional Man.
The consequences are not equally distributed – some people are still more likely to get shot as a result. But profiling – reducing ourselves and each other to a series of simplistic images – is something we all have in common.