The ugly truth of racial profiling
Despite a meeting between Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates and police officer James Crowley, police racism can’t be washed away with a bottle of beer.
LIBERALS FROM President Barack Obama on down want the country to move on from the debate about a white cop's outrageous arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, one of the leading African American intellectuals in the country.
But for millions of Black people across the U.S., there's no "moving on" from racial profiling. For African Americans--particularly young men--every encounter with a cop carries heightened risk of arrest, or worse.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, almost alone among prominent journalists, called the July 16 arrest of Gates what it was: an example of the racial profiling that helped send one in 15 African Americans to prison in 2006. Of Black men between the ages of 20 and 34, a staggering one in nine were in prison that year.
As is well known, Gates was arrested inside his own home after a woman called police and reported that she saw what she thought was a break-in at the home. Even after Gates identified himself as the resident of the house and a Harvard professor, he was arrested anyway, supposedly for becoming belligerent.
But as Herbert writes, "If Professor Gates ranted and raved at the cop who entered his home uninvited with a badge, a gun and an attitude, he didn't rant and rave for long. The 911 call came in at about 12:45 on the afternoon of July 16 and, as The Times has reported, Mr. Gates was arrested, cuffed and about to be led off to jail by 12:51.
"The charge: angry while Black.
"The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a 'teachable moment,' but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it--especially for Black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.
"I have nothing but contempt for that message."
Unfortunately, even Gates--who was initially, and justifiably, furious at his racist treatment at the hands of police--seems to have bowed to the pressure.
Even before he had a much-publicized beer at the White House with the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, Gates himself stated publicly that it was time to "move on" from the incident.
That's a tragedy. Gates' arrest--as the Harvard professor himself originally said--was an opportunity to highlight the social impact of racial profiling. If one of the world's most famous African American academics can get cuffed and hauled off to jail in minutes in liberal Cambridge--by a cop who supposedly trains others in racial sensitivity, no less--then what chance do young, working-class and poor African American men have?
The statistics tell the story. As Obama pointed out in a press conference, racial profiling is a fact--and it's endemic. Consider this statement by a researcher from the ultra-establishment Rand Corporation: "In 2006, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stopped a half-million pedestrians for suspected criminal involvement. Raw statistics for these encounters suggest large racial disparities--89 percent of the stops involved nonwhites."
That disparity continues all the way through the criminal justice system. As the Pew Center noted in a recent study, 1 in 31 Americans are either behind bars, on probation or parole: "Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography: 1 in 11 Black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7 percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent) versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent). The rates can be extremely high in certain neighborhoods. In one block-group of Detroit's East Side, for example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control."
RATHER THAN see the Gates arrest as a prompt to delve into the ugly reality of a criminal justice system that targets and ensnares people of color hugely disproportionate numbers, the politicians and pundits have a different explanation. The real problem, they argue, was one of class. In this view, Gates' arrest was the outcome of a confrontation in which a wealthy and influential Harvard professor tried to lord it over a "working-class" white cop, as liberal commentator E.J. Dionne said on National Public Radio.
Thus a blatant act of racial profiling is magically transformed into its opposite--supposed evidence that the U.S. has become a "post-racial" society. The argument goes like this: In the context of Obama's election and the rise of Black CEOs at several major corporations, it was class antagonisms, rather than racism, that led to Gates' arrest.
Certainly, class is the fundamental dividing line in society, and class divisions exist within Black America. But in the hands of liberals, class is often used as a shield to deflect any accusations of racism. As columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post--an African American--pointed out, it's inconceivable that a famous white Harvard professor would have received the same treatment as Gates.
"Crowley wouldn't have lasted a week on the force, much less made sergeant, if he had tried to arrest every member of the Harvard community who treated him as if he belonged to an inferior species," Robinson wrote. "...Yet Gates's fit of pique somehow became cause for arrest. I can't prove that if the Big Cheese in question had been a famous, brilliant Harvard professor who happened to be white--say, presidential adviser Larry Summers, who's on leave from the university--the outcome would have been different. I'd put money on it, though. Anybody wanna bet?"
Barack Obama bears much of the responsibility for squelching the discussion of racial profiling, rather than use the Gates arrest to lead what former President Bill Clinton called "a national conversation on race." Of course, Clinton was completely disingenuous. His legislation on the death penalty and crime helped accelerate the imprisonment of African Americans.
But where Clinton was cynical, Obama was cowardly. After correctly accusing the Cambridge police of acting "stupidly" in arresting Gates and reminding the country of the persistence of racial profiling, Obama then caved in to cops across the U.S. as well as his White House advisers. Not only did Obama back off his remarks, he trivialized the incident by inviting the two men to have a beer with him--even though Crowley still refuses to apologize to Gates.
"The comforting thing about each 'national conversation on race' is that the 'teachable moment' passes before any serious conversation can get going," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
The matter shouldn't end there. Anti-racist activists should use the Gates arrest as an opportunity to highlight continued racial profiling and the plight of Blacks in the American Gulag. Obama doesn't want to press the issue because he's afraid of its implications for U.S. politics and his career. The corporate interests who support Obama and hide behind him aren't interested in exposing the depths of American racism.
But for anyone committed to social justice, it's necessary to describe the arrest of Gates for what it is--a transparent act of racism by an armed representative of the state. More than 150 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of a freed slave, Dred Scott, that "the Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect." That ruling, of course, lost its legal standing in the aftermath of the Civil War. But the arrest of Henry Louis Gates highlights the fact that white cops still don't feel bound to respect the rights of African Americans--no matter how famous they may be.