We often teach our children that if you study, go to school, work hard and remain focused, you will be able to transcend the many racial and social boundaries that permeate in society. That if you stay away from drugs, violence and criminal activity, the law will serve and protect you. So what do we tell young people today when they see an Ivy League Professor, a writer and producer for PBS documentaries, a renowned author, an editor of several influential anthologies, a board member of esteemed institutions like the New York Public Library and much much more get arrested in his own home? How do we even begin to explain the still evident and troubling notions of racism, injustice and institutional bias that exist in a country with an African American President?
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African American Research at Harvard University, was returning home to Cambridge, MA from filming a documentary in China last week when he and his driver had trouble getting in to his home. After fiddling with the door and eventually gaining access, Professor Gates and his African American driver entered the house, only to discover police arrive a short while later on reports of a burglary. The 58-year-old mild mannered professor with a leg disability then produced his ID in order to prove his residence in the posh neighborhood – in other words having to prove his worthiness despite his accolades of achievements. And yet still, somehow, this distinguished Ph.D. scholar was handcuffed, humiliated, belittled and arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ on his own front steps.
Almost immediately, Cambridge police – and some in the media – began painting Professor Gates as an angry Black man who became ‘irate’ or was ‘irritable and exhausted’ from his long voyage. Once again, many began drawing their own conclusions based off of one-sided police reports and statements that don’t take into account Professor Gates’ version of the incident. Yet again, many have taken the police departments’ words at face value and given a clear pass to any notion of agitation, harassment, instigation and abuse by the officers themselves. In 2009, we are again witnessing nothing other than racial profiling at its best.
In April of 1998, three Black men and one Latino were driving down the NJ Turnpike when their vehicle was pulled over and police fired 11 shots at the unarmed men. The late Johnnie Cochran and I fought diligently on behalf of these four innocent men and we pioneered a thorough investigation into police practices, protocol and an ingrained mentality we referred to as racial profiling. Defined later by the ACLU as any police-initiated action (including surveillance, search, detention, arrest or any other intervention) that relies to any degree on the race, ethnicity, religion or national origin of a person, racial profiling has virtually been in existence in some way, shape or form since the days of slavery. Countless studies on racial profiling stats and discriminatory behaviors have since emerged following the NJ Turnpike incident, and yet we see the practice still in effect on our streets, in our cities and in our towns. Time and again, history has proven that race-based policies do not make us safer. And time and again we see the vicious results of over-zealous officers who belittle individuals based on preconceived ideas – no matter how esteemed, educated or accomplished he/she may be.
I commend President Obama for personally acknowledging and defending Professor Gate’s honor at his press conference last week, and for highlighting the breath of work that still needs to be done in order to advance our nation into a true post-racial entity. Perhaps providing hope and urging young people to continue the good fight is the best thing we can do for the next generation.