Can we have class dismissed?

Diverse City
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  December 9, 2009

What, you might ask, does Ahmed Hussein Ismail, the alleged gun-toting robber mistakenly let out of jail in Portland, have in common with Tareq and Michaele Salahi, alleged White House party-crashers? I mean, aside from both having committed their offenses on the East Coast.

OK, you might not have asked that question at all, but I did. Because in both cases, I suspect they got where they did because of the power of class perceptions and being seen through social lenses.

At the Cumberland County Jail on December 2, Ahmed Hussein Ismail — who had been charged with robbery and aggravated reckless conduct with a gun — walked out on $240 bail though being held on $50,000. He did so because a correctional officer confused him with Ismail Mohamed Awad, who was being held on a simple robbery charge.

This despite the yellow maximum-security jumpsuit Ismail was wearing, which should have tipped off the officers at the jail that Ismail was not the kind of guy you let out for the bargain price of $240.

On November 24, Tareq Salahi and his wife, Michaele Salahi, crashed the first state dinner of Barack Obama's administration, held in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They took photos with Vice-President Joe Biden, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, CBS News anchor Katie Couric, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — and only got busted out because they posted those photos on Facebook.

The Salahis got past a Secret Service security checkpoint despite the fact they lacked invitations to the event. Something that, like Ismail's yellow jumpsuit, should have been an obvious tip-off.

In the case of Ismail here in Maine, I can see how the two men could be confused early on. Although they sport very different hairstyles and have very different middle names, they are of similar age and somewhat similar features. Ismail Awad is almost a reversal of Ahmed Ismail, and the latter got called over to the release area because, according to the Portland Press Herald, a correctional officer merely asked that "Ismail" be brought to the front.

But I don't think the lackadaisical approach to confirming identity, and overlooking that jumpsuit, could have happened without an attitude that "it's just another prisoner." Ismail and Awad were seen as interchangeable, so the staff got sloppy and ultimately ignored an obvious disconnect between the color of the jumpsuit and the amount of bail.

In the case of the Salahis, they were "interchangeable" too. As Virginia socialites who like to hit the parties — in fact, they had reportedly crashed a Congressional Black Caucus dinner in September — and sought to be on the upcoming reality series The Real Housewives of DC, they looked the part. So a member of White House security didn't see them as a potential threat.

We view people through lenses. And while I talk about race a lot, I truly believe that class is the bigger stumbling block. We lump folks together based on social cues that aren't reliable. We think people who fill their shopping carts with almost nothing but unhealthy junk food must lack education. We don't see people who fix our plumbing or fill our heating oil tanks as being people who discuss philosophy or complex political issues.

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