US Racial Profiling – Gates & Walker

There was a poorly placed reference on this blog the other day to the issue of Professor Gate’s arrest the other day in his own home. At the time I didn’t see the need to write a piece on it as there were more pressing Bermudian issues at hand. But having had some long discussions with some US citizens here at university with me, I thought it a good idea to give it a forum for discussion.

For those who are not aware of the situation, Professor Gates is a Prof at Harvard University, leading the African American Research Centre there. He had been away on a trip, and on returning home found it necessary to force his way into his own home as the door had gotten stuck. A passer-by (and not a neighbour as originally reported) saw him, and another African-American (his driver) forcing their way into the home and called the police suspecting they may be breaking and entering. The police arrived and questioned Professor Gates who identified himself as the owner of the home. Apparently (and quite understandably) he was quite incensed at the police questioning and argued with the police officer that this was an example of racial profiling. The police officer then arrested him for public disorder and (I believe) insulting a police officer. Professor Gates was later released without charge.

This in itself was quite an absurd event, though as racial profiling in the US goes, not all that serious. However President Obama was asked during a press briefing on Health Care Reform what he thought of it, and he promptly said it sounded like the police were acting stupidly and spoke of “the long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately”.. This then led to some conservative critics of the President to attack him for speaking on the issue without full knowledge of it. President Obama has now ‘qualified’ his statement in response to his critics.

My take on this is that I have no issue with a passer-by thinking she was observing a break-in calling the police – there may be some latent racial profiling involved here, but I can certainly see how a passer-by could mistake what she saw (two men forcing their way into a house) as a burglary. I can understand the police coming to check out the report. I can understand the Professor being upset about the incident, and with the history of racial profiling in the US, and his obvious knowledge of it, that’s totally understandable. What I have trouble understanding is why the police officer found it necessary to arrest the Professor at that point. A little thinking and empathy on the part of the police officer should have told him to have the humility to accept the criticism and just leave it at that. My best guess is that the uniform went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip. So I totally find the incident absurd.

What I have an issue with though is how this relatively minor issue seems to have grabbed the US national (and even international) news headlines. I really do think that the Professor is milking the limelight on this a bit too much, and the incident really is not worth all this bru-ha-hah. I say this in particular due to the recent death of Shem Williams at the hands of an undercover cop in Brooklyn.

To summarise from the various news reports on this, the undercover cop was assisting in a drug bust nearby, and decided to sit on the stoop of Mr. Walker’s mothers building while he helped the bust by keeping an eye out. Mr. Walker had a habit of coming out and chasing away drug dealers from this stoop came out for a cigarette, saw the undercover cop and mistook him for a drug dealer. He told him to leave, but the cop did not respond (allegedly due to earphones he was using to communicate with the other police). Mr. Walker then made good on his threat (leave or I’ll make you leave) which ended in the cop pulling his gun and shooting Mr. Walker dead.

I fully admit I do not know all the details of both cases. But to me the death of Shem Walker is much more newsworthy and illustrative of the US race problem than the case of Professor Gates. There is racial profiling in the US, I don’t think we can deny that. There is systematic racial inequalities there on so many levels. But why is it that the stupid arrest of a Black bourgeois captures the news headlines while the hundreds of daily (and far more serious) incidents of racial profiling in the US just pass by as if they don’t exist? That to me is what needs discussed far more than the merits of Professor Gate’s case itself.

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20 thoughts on “US Racial Profiling – Gates & Walker

  1. Absurd is correct – and racial because it is difficult to believe it would have happened to a white guy.

    Questions:

    1) Why did the black police officer (in the picture) not say/do anything? (See link)

    http://edition.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/07/21/massachusetts.harvard.professor.arrested/

    2) Is this the best charge they could come up with… “the officer wrote he arrested Gates for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space.”.

    Loud – maybe? Tumultous – maybe? Public – No!

    3) Would the charges have been dropped if Obama had not gone public?

    4) The arresting officer lectures within the police force on racial profiling. Really?

  2. I don’t think anyone is surprised by this. Blacks (and other “minorities” – the word bothers me but I recognize its relevance – ) in the U.S. are still a long way from safety. Systematic forms of racism are still very prevalent in all aspects of our society. I do believe that had President Obama not chimed in on Mr. Gates case, this issue would have been a lot less important than the media has made it out to be.

    In a world society that is changing it’s face (diversification), it is still extremely difficult for those who truly need to fight for what’s right, against those who simply do not know any better. Certainly the bastions of our communities such as law enforcement should know better. Certainly they should be trained properly and should not be baited into poor decision making, but they too are only human, and until each and every one of us are able to recognize our own personal issues with race, these situations won’t go away.

    Mr. Gates, as an educated black man, should accept that his remarks have not made it any easier, and if he had called the police in the beginning to assist him in getting into his house, this issue may not have occurred. As someone who knows what dangers lurk behind such accusations, it was inherent on him to be a tad more “patient” with those who’s motto is to “protect and serve”.

    Likewise the police officer might have used a bit more empathy and a little less force. Police have a hard job, that’s for sure, but they need to recognize the warning signs of a situation that was only going to end up as front page fodder. At what point if you are a police officer confronting a highly agitated person trying to enter their own home, would you not take a stance of, “Let’s see if I can help the process… not hinder it.” Sometimes the obvious answer isn’t just that obvious.

    Last but not least, it may have been a tad bit over the top for President Obama to interject on this. In a time where he is looking to establish himself as a thoughtful and highly intelligent president (coming on the heels of GWB) to be allowed to be drawn into this conversation when he was meant to be selling health care, is in itself a tad careless. Allowing himself to be put in the middle of a squabble between law enforcement and a friend won’t win him any friends in police departments around the country.

    One of the few Op-ed columnists I follow has his own vew… enjoy!!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/25/opinion/25blow.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

  3. So many questions, to which we may not find the answers.

    Taking an overall view, this isn’t right. That said, there are a number of errors of judgement here – the police officer – Mr Gates – Obama.

    I also can’t get my head around the fact that the officer trains other police officers in racial profiling. Apparently an expert. Does that lend credibility to the arrest?

    Obama’s statements since, suggest that he ‘jumped the gun slightly’. I don’t think that matters other than it might send a message that Obama has finally come out of the closet on racial matters. His preference for emphasising the positives we all share, took a bashing.

    The charges have been dropped, but I do wonder whether that would have been the case, had this not blown up?

    The prescence of a black officer at the arrest is also interesting. It may be that he was ‘junior to’, so whatever his feelings, he might not have been able to interject. (See link)

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8166278.stm

    My overiding concern is not this specific affair, but rather policing in the US in general.

    Accepting they have a very difficuly job to do, I still get the feeling they are over reactive in many situations. Remember the saying…”it’s a fair cop” when you knew the police had you bang to rights…well I get the overall feeling in the US it isn’t always.

  4. I think Professor Gates took an opportunity to bring back to the front burner the incidents of ‘Racial Profiling’ that still occurr in the US.

    He escalated it. All he had to do was show them pictures, bills, anything easily at hand.

    By just showing identity is neither here nor there.

    Reflect on it and think about. Think about the circumstances from a-z. He knew he was right in standing his ground in his own house but took it too the next level.

    Not knowing the owner, the resident was enough to ask for ID. Professors are not above the law.

    The race card played once more. Looking for a new deck myself, or maybe just take up checkers……….

    I can’t tell you the amount of times people have told me….”Yah juss arrastin me cause um bleck’……

    I need a ………

    A great day too all and thats all I have to say on the matter.

  5. Gates’ attorney, told ABC News that his client was “relieved and excited” by the president’s telephone call…

    He’s excited about book sales and publicity, cash cow, he’ll milk millions from this tantrum

    from Calypso louie “atonement” to EB big CON-versation” ..code words for reparations-victimization & entitlement,something for nothing

    Chris rock has it in a nutshell

  6. I would have thought that Dr. Gates would be recognised by most people. Apparently not.

    A classic case of over-reaction by all parties involved. Understandable and regrettable, simultaneously. I can sympathise with Dr. Gates especially, seeing as INS loves to single me out every time I go to the US, just because I resemble a certain demographic.

    Jon, thanks for the other links, certainly worthy of more discussion.

  7. Then just get your passport stamped by INS. I am sure they will assist you. I don’t have that problem at all and I look more like Osama than you do.

    Oh..the over reaction? Stick to science. Facts are real.

  8. Rummy,

    I have the stamps as befits my Bermudian nationality. It hasn’t helped.

    While the US is a great place in many respects, it is without a doubt the most violent and culturally biased place on earth. Our proximity to them, their media, and their wish to impose their “ideals” on all and sundry, is far more damaging to the state of things in Bermuda than any other threat we face.

  9. Well Bermuda can’t be far behind per capita.

    As for your problems with INS maybe it’s because you have a surname like or similar to most stop list or persons of interest. It’s all relative.

    As for your other comments they are also relative. The Germans say that of the British, the Danes of Russia, the Afgans of Pakistan and the North Koreans of South Korea.

    Media, money, and greed. Thats what it is all about and has been since Eve wore a bikini at the ‘apple promotion’ in the garden of Edenton……..

    Really sounds from your words that you have issues with the USA yet thrive off what most do.

    Have a great day.

    Rummy.

    Ps. It’s all relative. Now back too the topic.

    Pps. Call Greg. He can assist.

  10. Hi Denis – Yes I do. I know that it works from Vexed Bermoothes and Global Voices. However I don’t think it works from Beachlime. And no, I have no idea why that would be.

  11. I don’t think Blogger supports the trackback option, as I’ve tried to find out in the past how to do it to a bunch of other blogs. Yep, another reason to switch to WordPress.

  12. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Caribbean: On Henry Gates Jr.

  13. @RenMan – “the US is … the most … culturally biased place on earth” – say what?

    If you meant ‘biased against other cultures’, try trying to introduce different cultural norms into, say, the Federated Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and see how well they handle other cultures.

    If you meant ‘bias is part of the culture’, you should try looking around the world some more. The Japanese (much as I love much about them) think they are the Chosen People, and consider _everyone_ else to be inferior.

    Noel

    PS: I’m totally amused at all the posters here who are saying ‘would the charges have been dropped without Obama’. The charges were dropped on July 21st – Obama’s press conference was on July 22nd. Like Obama, they are jumping to conclusions without actually bothering to check the facts.

  14. Alright Noel, agreed that was a bit harsh. The examples that you cite are valid. Bermuda itself is increasingly xenophobic.

    However, the US prides itself on its acceptance of immigrants, but is in actuality intolerant of them. It’s the hypocrisy that struck me, and that’s what I was trying to point out.

  15. Intolerant – yes. Yet the US is a country of immigrants – isn’t it?

    I never understood exactly what an American was/is.

  16. @RenMan

    ‘Twas ever thus, until people got used to them, and they assimilated. Look at Italians and Irish back in the day, the Chinese out West back in the late 1800s, the Japanese out West in the early years of the 20th Century, etc, etc.

    People are, by their very nature, tribal and territorial – like our predecessor species, no doubt. ‘What’s ours it ours, and we don’t want you pesky outsiders coming in and taking away our {food, land, resources, females, etc}.’

    To some degree, in _some_ cases, it’s actually rational – e.g. Bermuda is simply too small to accept a flood of newcomers.

    But getting back to the US – yes, they aren’t perfect about taking people in – but then again, a lot of other allegedly enlightened countries are worse. Try being Arab in France, or Turkish in Germany, or Pakistani in Britain, etc, etc.

    Hey, they’re human, they make mistakes, and progess happens in fits and starts (see the examples above, again).

    They have far worse faults than that one, though (see Michael Collins’ fine rant in his Apollo 40th anniversay interview for some).

    Noel

  17. Noel, only you would know that I have already read Collins’ rant! Did you order your Haynes LLM manual yet?

    I didn’t want to be overly harsh on the US. You know I have many friends and family there. I’ve just become sensitized to certain things, like the anti-arab feelings there. Just last summer, I was at a Wal-Mart (the girls do like shopping) and a recent immigrant family (Honduran) was having trouble making themselves understood. I translated for them (good practice for my rusty Spanish), and they were most grateful However, afterwards, complete strangers were telling me off for helping them! Pretty nasty statements, none of which should be repeated here. I was amazed at the backlash.

    There have been tons of news exposés on the subject of immigrant abuse. What is more of a problem is the tacit acceptance of it by many.

    FWIW, while I was in France in the mid-90s, arabs weren’t the main issue. In fact, a lot of Moroccans and Algerians were doing quite well, and certainly accepted in southern France. It was the gypsies and the Albanians that had most people worried. But the arab riots of last year have probably turned that around.

    While I understand tribalism, I would like to hope that people could learn to recognise it, and rise above it.

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