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Can Prejudice Be Justified?

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By now everyone has heard of the incident that occurred with Professor Henry Louis Gates and officer James Crowley of the Cambridge Police department. Just to recap, a woman calls the police to inform them that two black men are breaking into a house. The police end up arresting a Harvard professor at his own house for disorderly conduct. At his own house. President Barack Obama calls the actions taken by the Cambridge police "stupid," the officers apparently get offended and return with criticism that the President commented without knowing all of the facts. As if there was a missing piece of evidence that supported arresting a man for breaking into his own house and citing the reason for the arrest as disorderly conduct.

President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Joseph McMillan stated:

Once Gates was identified as the lawful resident of the house, the police contact should have ended.

Sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Officer Crowley, in describing the chain of events, explains that Professor Gates was arrested after he proved to him that it was indeed his house, showed the proper identification, and began to become in Crowley's words "disorderly." I guess he expected bygones to be bygones, and to receive an invite for some donuts and maybe a good laugh at the absurdity of being detained or even questioned for breaking into one's own house. Or maybe Crowley expected Gates to say something along the lines of, "Oh, that's O.K. Mr. Police Officer, I know you were just doing your job and the fact that you treated me like a common criminal despite the fact that I am a Harvard Professor with numerous honorary degrees, widely considered one of the nation's foremost authority on black culture, didn't even bother me. Thank you for keeping our streets safe."

To add insult to injury, Crowley has proclaimed that he will not apologize because he feels he did nothing wrong. This father of three (not sure why articles keep pointing that out so I decided to reiterate) and police academy instructor on the dangers of racial profiling, who the Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas describes as "a stellar member of the department," who Academy director Thomas Fleming calls "a good role model," described by his colleagues as an overall wonderful human being, told the Herald, "I just have nothing to apologize for, it will never happen."

My four-year-old son Malcolm knows that saying you're sorry for something you have done to offend another person is what you are supposed to do. He knows that even if it was an accident and you had no intention of disrespecting or affronting the person, the correct thing to do is to offer a sincere apology. Oh, if we could all have the mentality of a four year old.

But to make matters worse, Crowley brings up the fact that he tried to save basketball star Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, as if that proves that he couldn't possibly be a racist. What is he going to say next, that he enjoyed watching every season of The Cosby Show? Michael Jackson was one of his favorite entertainers? He has black friends?

President Obama has invited them both to the White House to sit down and iron out whatever happened. I'm sure they will shake hands, maybe even apologize to each other for their parts in the incident and take a picture together or something. However, there is a bigger issue that this incident has sparked.

An article on CNNPolitics.com called "Obama's Rush to Judgment on Police" by Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay College, offered a very interesting perspective. In the article she says:

Police work is about sub-cultural contexts, war stories, about suspicion, about unpredictability, about danger and fear of one's life. Police make their decisions based on not just a given situation but also based on their prior experience, the experience of those they have worked with and the stories they have heard about incidents that happened in the past... Police officers hear about these stories and unlike the members of the public who forget a story no matter how sensational within a day or two, police carry these stories as their secret weapons. This is part of their armor. An officer responding to a burglary in progress arrives at the scene with a heightened sense of danger, anxious and ready to fighting mode.

Sounds a lot like she is justifying prejudice. So would I be well within my rights to utilize the same method of thinking that was described by Professor Haberfeld? Would I be justified in thinking that every police officer I see is a racist pig? I mean, I have "prior experiences and the experience of those I have worked with and the stories they have heard about incidents that happened in the past." Personal experiences such as being stopped and dragged out of my car while I was in high school by members of the Tulsa Police Department and made to lay on the ground while on my way to one of the biggest games of the season because the officers thought they saw my face in a lineup or on a mug shot. It turned out they had just seen me in the papers playing basketball, but I definitely didn't receive an apology. Or while I was in college being put in handcuffs by the Syracuse Police Department, in the snow mind you, my freshman year along with one of my teammates because they thought we had stolen the car we were in. They actually had the audacity to tell us to stay out of trouble afterward, but no apology. Or after I was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, being stopped by the Dallas Police Department and told that my Navigator would be impounded if I could not provide proof of a job that would allow me to purchase a car of that magnitude. Again I received no apology. Or driving through Virginia on my way to one of my teammate's house and being stopped by the Virginia Police Department and asked what business I had in that neighborhood, detained for hours and later told that I "fit the description" of something that happened. Still no apology.

As far as "war stories, unpredictability, danger and fear of one's life," just in the past 5 years there has been an abundance of horror stories of police brutality. Events that seemingly are forgotten about by the general public within a day or two that I could carry around as "secret weapons." Accounts such as the NYPD shooting Sean Bell fifty times on the morning of his wedding day on November 25th of 2006; the image of half a dozen Philadelphia police officers beating, kicking and punching three men while holding them on the ground on May 7, 2008; Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle executing 22 year old Oscar Grant while he was handcuffed and lying face down on the pavement in January of 2009. Unfortunately I could go on and on with example after example.

I'm not alone in having personal accounts of "war stories" that could shift the entire way I look at all law enforcement. President Barack Obama wrote in his book The Audacity Of Hope:

Although, largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the average black man must endure -- I can recite the usual litany of petty slights that during my 45 years have been directed my way: security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason. I know what it's like to have people tell me I can't do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger.

So my question is, would I or any other black man who shares "war stories" involving the police be justified, utilizing Professor Haberfeld's method, in immediately going into "a heightened sense of danger, anxious and ready to go into fighting mode" type of a mentality every time I see a policeman? Would I be justified in prejudging them before knowing anything about them? Do the isolated incidents in my past and what I have seen justify an overall prejudice toward all policemen? The answer of course is no.

My Grandfather told me a long time ago that he couldn't put all white people in the category of devils because he had to judge each person as an individual. Now, if they prove themselves to be devils, then that is a different story, but they have to prove that first. He had a long list of previous experiences that I couldn't even imagine living through or being able to deal with, but he always concluded that there are good white people and there are bad white people, just as there are good black people and bad black people. This is my point: no matter what our past experiences are, it is not intelligent, nor is it fair not to see people as individuals. Furthermore, if a policeman is to prejudge a situation and not have the ability to view it on a case-by-case basis, he has no business being a policeman.

If not responsibly honed, their power can become catastrophic, dangerous, destructive and corrupt.

For more from Etan check out his new project, Etan Thomas Presents: Voices of the Future