Dr. Gates Injected Race Into The Encounter

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In spite of the reality of racial profiling, lynchings, cross burnings, and the more recent history of police shootings, Dr. Gates allowed his fear and instincts to color his reality. By his own account, he injected race into the circumstance.

[The Way I See It]

This afternoon, President Obama, Sgt. James Crowley, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. will sit down at the White House to “clear the air.” 

The President’s objective is to bring the parties together and through their personal interaction move the national dialogue on race forward.  In the President’s “Teachable Moment” what should we learn? 

We should learn how one’s perceptions can color their reality.  We should also learn the danger of trying to contort a non-race based issue into a dialog or valuable lesson on race. 

In all of the accounts of Dr. Gates’ arrest there has never been any indication that Sgt. Crowley used racial slurs, epithets, gestures or any other means to inject “race” into the arrest. 

Even Dr. Gates’ attorney, Charles Ogletree, when asked about racial profiling during a CNN interview said, “I’ve never said anything about racial profiling; you’ve never heard those words from me, it’s a case of bad judgment—we won’t know about the race element until all of the facts are in.”

How did the element of race enter into the equation of Dr. Gates’ arrest? He injected it. In a July 21, 2009 interview in The Root, Dr. Gates said, “I can’t believe that an individual policeman on the Cambridge police force would treat any African-American male this way—and more importantly I’m astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States…”

Dr. Gates’ turned an investigation of a breaking and entering and his subsequent arrest for disorderly conduct into a case of racial profiling.

While Sgt. Crowley is looking at Dr. Gates’ Harvard ID, Dr. Gates says in The Root interview,  “Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.” 

How could Dr. Gates read Sgt. Crowley’s mind?  Dr. Gates perceptions were beginning to color his sense of reality and turning an investigation of a breaking and entering into a case of racial profiling.

In 2005 the ACLU provided a definition of what racial is and is not.  The definition reads as follows, "Racial Profiling" refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin… Racial profiling does not refer to the act of a law enforcement agent pursuing a suspect in which the specific description of the suspect includes race or ethnicity in combination with other identifying factors.” 

Dr. Gates was not targeted based upon his race or any other characteristic.  He was simply the individual in the home where a breaking and entering had been reported.

Sgt. Crowley was not passing by Dr. Gates’ home and upon seeing –profiling-- a Black man in a White neighborhood decided to investigate this seemingly strange occurrence.  Sgt. Crowley was responding to a reported breaking and entering at Dr. Gate’s residence.  Most police officers will tell you, “safety first; better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.” 

What should we learn from the President’s “Teachable Moment?”  We should learn that contrary to popular belief, President Obama’s election in no way signaled a move into a “post-racial” America.  Racial profiling is a reality for African Americans, Latino’s, and Muslims and the election of a Black President can not make that go away.

When Sgt. Crowley appeared on Dr. Gates’ porch and asked Dr. Gates to step outside, Dr. Gates said, “All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, ‘No, I will not.’”  Dr. Gates’ instinct was real.  His fear was based on a history of lynching’s, cross-burnings, and black men disappearing into the night at the hands of the Klan.

Dr. Gates’ instinct was a reaction to a recent history of police perceptions of threat resulting in the shooting deaths of people of color.  On January 1, 2009 Oscar Grant, an African American, was killed by a white BART police officer while hand-cuffed and face down; May 28, 2009, NYPD off-duty officer Omar Edwards, an African American, was killed by a white fellow officer who mistook him for a perpetrator; November 27, 2006, Sean Bell, an African American was mistakenly killed by NYPD; January 12, 2001 plain clothes officer with the Oakland, CA Police Department, Willie Wilkins, an African American was killed by a fellow officer who mistook him for a perpetrator; January 28, 2000 plainclothes police officer Cornel Young was killed in Rhode Island by a white fellow officer and academy classmate who mistook him for a perpetrator; March 15, 2000 Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian immigrant was mistakenly killed by the NYPD; February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant was mistakenly killed by the NYPD.

In spite of the reality of racial profiling, lynchings, cross burnings, and the more recent history of police shootings, Dr. Gates allowed his fear and instincts to color his reality.  By his own account, he injected race into the circumstance.

What should we learn from the President’s “Teachable Moment?”  We should learn that contrary to Matt Bai’s 2008 article in The New York Times, President Obama is not the end of Black Politics.  As long as unemployment among African American’s is more than twice the rate of White Americans --four times in New York-- and as long as studies show that a Black family's income is a little more than half that of a similar White family's income, Black politics will be alive and well.

There’s a lot that can be learned about race and racial profiling in America from President Obama’s “Teachable Moment”. When a person views a problem as a nail, their solution will probably be a hammer, even if the problem is a screw.  It’s good that Dr. Gates’ arrest has become the catalyst for the dialog on race.  Unfortunately, it’s the wrong example to use.


Black Star columnist Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer-Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “On With Leon,” and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

Go to
www.wilmerleon.com or email: wjl3us@yahoo.com.

Please post your comments directly or submit them to Milton@blackstarnews.com


 

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