Sunday, July 26, 2009

Driving While Black (DWB). A Victimless Crime?

Does "Cambridge-Gate" tell us anything about the state of race relations in America? Or was the arrest of prestigious Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. just an isolated incident that's been blown out of proportion?
The dueling perspectives are revealing. President Obama originally said the Cambridge police acted stupidly. The officers – ironically, the lead one teaches a class about racial profiling – insist they followed protocol.
In "post-racial" America, discussing uncomfortable racial encounters, especially by law enforcement, can seem like whining or victimhood.
Unfortunately, our racial discourse too often dissolves into generalities, conflations, and misunderstanding.
The fact that the nation, including President Obama, interrupted an urgent debate about healthcare reform to reflect on this particular arrest speaks volumes about how race continues to matter in our society. Just this afternoon, Obama told the press he had called Sgt. James Crowley (the arresting officer) to clarify his remarks and suggested he'd like to share a beer with him and Professor Gates at the White House.
Gates's story resonated with me – a Black law and medical school professor – and I wish it had not, because it recalls my pain in similar encounters.
I remember the time I was pulled over in Indiana about seven years ago. The gum-chewing officer demanded to know: "What's the situation here?"
A look of disbelief blossomed into terror across the faces of my two white colleagues from Europe, as I explained to the officer that the men were colleagues and I was driving them to the airport. Unsatisfied with that answer, he went to the passenger side of the car, to confirm this from my Italian colleague. Only then did he let us proceed.
Or there was last year in Chicago, when I was pulled over after leaving the Mercedes Benz repair shop. The officer came to my car wanting to know whether the car was mine. I explained that it was and that I was on my way to work at the University of Chicago. Yet he continued to ask, several times, whether the car belonged to me. Each time, I answered "Yes." The irony is that he was holding the registration papers, insurance card, and my driver's license. What more proof could I offer?
My frustration deepened precisely because the officer had verification of my ownership. His further delay wasted his time and mine. I refuse the cloak of victimhood, but after he pulled away, I called my husband – a white professor – and wept long and hard.
Perhaps the incident that troubles me most deeply, and which remains difficult to talk about, occurred 10 years ago, my daughter was in pre-school.
We were pulled over at night, after being followed for (I would later learn) 31 miles by an unmarked car driven by an officer not in uniform. When I asked for his identification, the man hurled racial epithets and screamed "I am the police," while beating on my car with his flashlight.
Fortunately, for my daughter and I, my friend, a white social worker whose seat had been in full recline, sat up and began screaming. When the officer saw her he stopped beating my car. I immediately called the police. As the officers arrived, we were told to drive off.
It was my friend who followed-up, filing the police complaint. It was a terror that she will not forget. I recently looked at the internal investigation report to prove to myself that it wasn't just a horrible dream.
We will never know exactly what happened at Gates's home July 16. But in a city full of noisy college students, police regularly deal with loudness and tumultuous behavior. So doesn't it seem odd that officers chose to arrest a slight, gray-haired man who relies on a cane to walk – after they confirmed it was his home?
Despite some of my experiences, I know that most officers are well-meaning and sophisticated; they deal with emotionally-charged situations in homes all the time and often provide relief. Think of the reaction when a mom finds out her child has been injured or assaulted.
In the spirit of helpfulness, why not search the home for a burglar, to protect Gates, whom they knew belonged there?
Black professors expect that if they work hard, accumulate multiple degrees, write prolifically, defy low expectations, and exceed the highest standards, they'll be insulated from stereotypes and maltreatment. But fair or reasonable treatment is not a societal goal reserved for only the well-educated. Everyone deserves at least that, even in Cambridge.
Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a professor of law and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Minnesota.
(By Michele Bratcher Goodwin)

Well, well, well … another “racial incident” is upon us. This time, we’re in an uproar over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates (Black) by Sgt. James Crowley (white) for disorderly conduct after a heated argument about whether Gates had broken into his own house in Cambridge, Mass. Incidents like this should be an excuse to have a nuanced discussion about race in America. It's an excellent opportunity for people to hear about why Black men feel so threatened by police. Hell, it would be a great time for a bit of B-roll─just a taste of the famous incidents that have seared a distrust of the police into African-Americans, for better or for worse. It could start with the use of high-pressure water hoses and dogs on children in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and continue through the high-profile murders of black folks, such as Emmett Till, by people who were not convicted but who confessed to the crime in Life magazine. Maybe it could mention that of the 240 postconviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., 142 have been of African-Americans. And though it may be controversial, perhaps throw in the exoneration of four white officers for the beating of Rodney King in 1992.

Now, I know that none of these things have much to do with what happened at Professor Gates’s house, except that they have everything to do with it. It’s important for people to know that Black distrust of the cops didn’t form in a vacuum. And you know, it wouldn’t hurt to get a little background on what local and national police procedure actually is under these kinds of circumstances.

For instance,(1) if a cop asks you to step outside, do you have to? (No. No. A thousand times NO!)
(2) Do the police have a right to come inside your house?
NO! Not without your permission, unless they have a warrant sign by a neutral and detached magistrate, or have probable cause to believe that a crime is in progress.
(3) Is it illegal to yell at the police? (No.)
But it is appropriate for cops to investigate 911 calls. That’s what we pay them to do. We don’t escape racially charged situations by silence or ignorance. And we clearly don’t escape “the third rail of race,” as the press likes to call it, by sticking to our talking points no matter the circumstances. Let’s just run through those talking points and see how we could have made some headway but didn’t:

1. The president should have kept his mouth shut until he knew all the facts. This is a popular rebuttal in situations like this, when directly answering the point raised would force you to possibly admit some wrongdoing, and, for some reason, when race is concerned it’s impossible to be even 1 percent wrong. When Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, was asked at today’s press conference what the proper procedure is for arresting people for disorderly conduct, the question was thoroughly ducked by an association attorney who said, “Having spent 30 years in the business, any law professor will tell you that one of the most difficult crimes to define is disorderly [conduct], but when a police officer makes a decision on the street, he doesn’t have time to explore 20 years of precedent.” That’s not an answer that indicates they’re confident Gates had been disorderly, but to answer that wouldn’t have served their point.

2. It was Gates who brought race into it. As if. As Gates, editor of the African American National Biography, would tell you, I’m sure race was a factor before his white female neighbor picked up her phone to dial 911. The cutting-edge research of UCLA’s Matthew D. Lieberman shows that large majorities of both Blacks and whites exhibit an automatic threat response when shown a picture of an African-American man with a neutral facial expression. That doesn’t mean we’re all racist, but it sure as heck indicates that we’re not race-neutral either. Nobody, especially police, can say that race is never, ever a fact in their decision making. Unconscious racial bias plagues us all. It was at least a partial motivation for the neighbor when she thought to call the police, and it was clearly uppermost in Gates’s mind when Sergeant Crowley knocked on his door.

3. The police are always motivated by racial animus when they investigate crime. They aren’t─there are tons of fabulous police officers who put themselves in harm's way to protect the citizens of their municipality. Once you begin to generalize wildly about all cops, you lose the argument that some cops do use racial profiling to target and harass African-Americans. The great thing about nuance is that it allows your point to be made and not immediately dismissed out of hand. Black people don’t commit all the crime in the United States, but they do commit some crime, so it’s not wacky for a cop to suspect that an African-American may have actually done something wrong. Forgive the sarcasm, but I’m just sick and tired of the conversation being hijacked by hardliners trying to convince us that it’s an either/or thing: either all black people are innocent and simply victims of police harassment and entrenched poverty, or all police officers are hardworking saints making snap decisions that are always right.

The wild reaction to President Obama’s comments indicates how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations. We use every incident that brings race to the forefront as proof that our previous positions were correct. This is why the American people are so weary of racial incidents; they're all sound and no substance. We elected an African-American president, for gosh sakes─we can handle nuance.


ichbinalj said...

(7/29/2009-BOSTON)White Police Officer Calls Prof Henry Gates a jungle monkey.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis placed Police Officer Justin Barrett, 36, on administrative leave pending the outcome of a termination hearing.

"Commissioner Davis was made aware of a correspondence with racist remarks and removed the officer of his gun and badge."

The email describes Harvard Professor Doctor Henry Luis Gates, who was arrested and briefly detained earlier this month at Harvard, near Boston, as a "banana-eating jungle monkey" .

The city's mayor, Tom Menino, was quoted referring to Barrett as a "cancer in the department" and calling on him to be fired.

Gates became the center of a national debate on racism when he was charged with disorderly conduct after arguing with police sent to investigate a suspected burglary at his home near Harvard University.

President Barack Obama became embroiled in the uproar when he said police acted "stupidly."

But the email has reignited the controversy and dealt Boston's police a severe image blow just when they and the White House were hoping to calm tensions.

The email allegedly written by Barrett lambasts Gates for getting into an altercation with police.

"I am not a racist, but I am prejudice towards people who are stupid," reads the alleged diatribe -- containing frequent grammatical and spelling errors -- against Gates and local newspaper the Boston Globe.

"He has indeed transcended back to a bumbling jungle monkey."

ichbinalj said...

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Black friend of Prof Henry Louis Gates' who had called the arrest "every Black man's nightmare," said Monday that he won't apologize for his remarks. A multiracial group of police officers supporting Crowley has demanded an apology.