Blinded by Science

When Barbies are outlawed, only outlaws will have Barbies.

Life in Boulder isn't all fun and games these days -- although you might think otherwise, considering how much time the Boulder Valley School Board has spent playing with dolls.

The games began when a precocious eight-year-old set up her exhibit at the annual Mesa Elementary School science fair. The third-grader had used two Barbie dolls -- one black, one white -- to test the racial perceptions of adults at her father's workplace and of fifth-graders at her own school. She'd dressed one doll in a plain dress, one in a fancy purple dress, and asked which was prettier. Then she'd switched dresses and repeated the process with a different set of adults and students. The adults consistently favored the doll wearing the purple dress (va-va-voom!). But the fifth-graders preferred the white Barbie no matter what she was wearing.

This damning conclusion was simply too much for Mesa Elementary officials, who yanked the exhibit almost as soon as the fair opened, claiming it violated the school district's non-discrimination policy. "Teachers felt the project was racially insensitive and could cause offense to their students," wrote Mesa principal Greg Thompson in a letter to parents. "Particularly students of color."

Not that there are many to offend at Mesa Elementary, which is 93 percent white.

Last week the school board backed Mesa Elementary's actions, determining that social-science experiments had no place in a grade school and again citing the non-discrimination policy, which prohibits anything that might be demeaning to a racial or ethnic group.

But now the school board is caught between a frock and a hard place. Because in banning the girl's project, it also violated her First Amendment rights, according to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It was a triumph of political correctness over free speech and free inquiry," says ACLU chapter chair Barry Satlow. At last week's meeting, he told boardmembers that they might want to revisit their non-discrimination policy -- or face a lawsuit.

For Boulder to determine that the social sciences aren't appropriate for a science fair is akin to towns in the Deep South deciding to close swimming pools rather than integrate them, Satlow says. Not only was the girl's project protected as free speech, but it stood on its own as a valid scientific experiment. "Her hypothesis was that people would choose the white doll because that was what they were used to," Satlow says. "She gathered the data and reported the data, even though it disproved some of her hypothesis."

Showing students a black doll and a white doll "parallels the experiment done by Brown v. Board of Education," Satlow adds. And if it was good enough for Thurgood Marshall, it should be good enough for the Boulder thought police.

But while Boulder -- a bastion of liberalism so forgiving it can embrace both the headquarters of Soldier of Fortune and one of the country's most successful X-rated cable entrepreneurs, a town so sensitive it thinks pets deserve guardians rather than owners -- may be blinded by science, it is far from color-blind.

More empirical evidence of that cropped up on February 23, when an eagle-eyed citizen called the Boulder Police Department to report a crime in progress in her neighborhood. And not just any garden-variety Boulder crime, either, like someone stealing a $2,000 mountain bike or scratching a Range Rover. No, she'd spotted two Hispanic youths carrying a box to a car in broad daylight, which could mean only one thing: robbery.

Eight Boulder police officers showed up in the 700 block of Grant Place, just up from the Hill and down from Chautauqua Park, a Barbie doll's throw from the home once occupied by John and Patsy Ramsey. Sure enough, the cops spotted two suspicious characters in a red car. They ordered them out of the car and down on the ground -- and then handcuffed them.

It wasn't until they'd restrained these desperadoes that the cops learned that the two young men were college students and that one of them actually lived in the house he'd allegedly robbed. There had been no crime.

Except, of course, for the criminal stupidity exhibited by the caller, who simply didn't think it was possible for two young Hispanics to have legitimate business in an upscale neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. And in acting on her tip, the Boulder police had been all-too-eager accomplices. Had the cops been so efficient early on the morning of December 26, 1996, the killer of JonBenét Ramsey -- or at least an innocent-but-ethnic garbage collector or mailman -- might have been locked up long ago.

Boulder police chief Mark Beckner quickly took action once he realized his department's blunder. "We were very upset about what happened, to put it mildly," says Boulder city spokeswoman Jana Peterson. The BPD investigated the "unfortunate incident," as the department termed it, and conceded that "the ethnicity of the individuals was the primary factor on which the reporting complainant based her suspicions." Unfortunately, the cops cuffed the individuals first and asked questions later.

"Profiling based on a person's race or ethnicity is something we are all concerned about, whether initiated by a civilian or officer," Beckner says. "As representatives of the community, we must continue to do what we can in terms of education, discussion, training and implementing procedures to eliminate these types of mistakes from happening in the future."

The officers responded to the situation in an "appropriate manner," the BPD determined, given the information they'd been provided by the dispatcher. Had the dispatcher been more forthcoming with details for the responding officers, though, that "probably would have downgraded the officers' response to the situation." According to Peterson, on the 911 tape "there are indications from the caller that she was engaging in racial profiling." And so Beckner has asked the commander of the Boulder Police Dispatch Center to make changes regarding how "suspicious incident" calls are dispatched. For starters, when a caller believes a situation is suspicious solely on the basis of someone's race or ethnicity, officers will not be dispatched to a scene.

Good thinking. Because even a third-grader could have gotten to the truth of this situation in three seconds flat.

On Friday, supporters of Representative Peter Groff's racial-profiling bill will rally at the State Capitol, pushing for a measure that would require law-enforcement officers to note just why, exactly, they decided to stop a certain citizen. The protest comes ten years after the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against Eagle County, where cops had stopped an inordinate number of minority drivers for traffic violations, and just days after a U.S. District Court judge finally signed off on that suit's settlement deal, which provides training in racial profiling for officers across the state.

Next stop: Boulder.

Just make sure the driver isn't wearing a purple dress.


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