In June, New York Congressman Charles Rangel took much heat when he pithily cracked that if President Obama took a stroll through East Harlem at nightfall sans suit presidential entourage and limo he could be shaken down, spread eagled and cuffed. Rangel moon walked back fast and apologized to one and all for demeaning the president. The apology was also aimed at blunting the notion that racial profiling was indeed alive and well in East Harlem and other poor black neighborhoods and that even prominent black men could be subject to racial harassment just for being black and male. Now less than two months later there's Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. In the moments immediately after his arrest on suspicion of breaking and entering his own home, Gates, like Rangel, bitterly lashed out at Cambridge Police and screamed that he was racially profiled. But then Gates, just like Rangel, also did something interesting. He lightly backed away from a blanket racial profiling cry, signed on to a joint statement with Cambridge officials about the altercation, and the charges were dropped. Gates leveled his fire at the individual cop who hauled him in.
The debate over whether Obama could be profiled and Gates was profiled, and by extension any black man, might have fizzled if President Obama had not weighed in and called the cop's action "stupid." The on-the-hot-seat officer, Sgt. James Crowley lashed back at Obama and refused to apologize. The line in the sand was quickly drawn. But that would have happened anyway.
Much of law enforcement, a wide segment of the public, and even many blacks vehemently deny that black men are systematically targeted for stop, search and humiliation by cops just because they're black. This is not an academic point. The refusal to admit that racial profiling exists, not to mention the endless columns by conservatives that call racial profiling a flat out myth, has done much to torpedo nearly every effort by local and national civil rights and civil liberties groups to get law enforcement and federal agencies not only to admit that racial profiling happens but to do something about it. A perennial federal bill served up by House Democrat John Conyers to get federal agencies to collect stats and do reports on racial profiling hasn't gotten to first base.
The surging number of blacks in America's jails and prisons seem to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face. And it doesn't much matter how prominent, wealthy, or celebrated the black is. The overkill frenzy feeding on the criminal hijinks of former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, O.J. Simpson, and the legions of black NFL, NBA stars, Hollywood personalities, and entertainers who run afoul of the law or are poorly behaved, and of course, everyone's favorite stomping boy, the rappers and hip hop artists, further implants the negative image of black males.
But others go much further than calling it simply a case of fanning racial stereotypes and negative typecasting; they say that good police work is about the business of catching criminals and reducing crime. And if more black men are stopped in poor black neighborhoods or in any other neighborhood, it's not because they're black but because they commit more crimes. The other even more problematic tact used to debunk racial profiling is the few stats that have been compiled on unwarranted stops. In this case not by police agencies but based on citizen responses. In two surveys, the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics took a hard, long quantified look at racial profiling using information that it got from citizens. Both times, the agency found that while whites are stopped, searched and arrested far less than blacks or Latinos, there was no hard proof that the stops had anything to do with race, but that they were made based on probable cause to suspect that a crime had been committed.
Again, that tracks back to the argument that these stops aren't about race, but about stopping crime, and the argument is made even more plausible when the stats also show that the overwhelming majority of those victimized by black criminals are other blacks. This has done much to tamp down a public outcry to get police agencies and legislators to admit that racial profiling is a fact on many city streets and highways and then to take firm action to eliminate it.
Gate's arrest touched off a brief flurry of finger pointing at the Cambridge police. But given the intense public horror of crime, the firm belief that police are just doing their job when they make stops, and the standard profuse apologies from police chiefs when prominent black men are occasionally straight jacketed by an over exuberant cop, the Gates episode likely will be eventually written off as at worst a silly, boneheaded, slip up by an over-exuberant cop or simply a cop who was just doing his job.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com