The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by police officers in his home in Cambridge has ignited yet another debate about the degree to which race still matters in American society. In fact, a considerable number of analysts, advocates and ordinary people (including Blacks) believe that the election of the first African American President signals the dawning of a post-racial society. Ostensibly, this means a society where race is no longer a significant barrier to fulfill one’s aspirations or where a group’s progress is no longer constrained or adversely affected by deeply ingrained myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about its culture, habits and behavior – where structural/institutional racism is a thing of the past.
Make no mistake about it; Africans in America have made huge strides towards freedom in this country in the last half century. There are no “white only” signs visibly blocking our access to public accommodations; poll taxes and grandfather clauses have been banned and people of African descent have penetrated to the highest heights of virtually every profession, appointed and elective office in this land including, the presidency of the United States. As the old folks might put it, “we sure ain’t what we’re gonna be, sure ain’t what we want to be, but we sure ain’t what we were!” That we have made enormous progress since emancipation from enslavement and the abolition of apartheid should be self-evident. However, those who believe this progress has eradicated racism are delusional.
Professor Gates may well have been one of those who were drinking the post-racial society Kool Aid before his highly publicized encounter with the police. If this had been a non-prominent Black person, the incident would not have made the news at all, let alone provoke a firestorm of national controversy. The media was quick to point out that Professor Gates is one of America’s most distinguished Black scholars. He is not only a leading Black scholar, he has long been a darling of the White academic establishment because of his assault on African-centered education and notable African-centered scholars like Dr. John Henrik Clark and Dr. Leonard Jeffries, arguing that their work was too political and not sufficiently rigorous to meet the standards of the academy. Therefore, it came as somewhat of a surprise that Professor Gates would come out swinging so militantly after feeling he was profiled by the Cambridge police.
But then again, he is not the first among us to experience the rude awakening that class and elite status do not matter when you are Black in America. Far too many in White America, and frankly immigrants who come to this country and are infected by stereotypes and negative images in the media, perceive Blacks as criminals and suspects people to be feared, mistrusted and avoided. This is particularly true in the criminal justice system where Professor Gates got his reality check.
As our late, beloved Sister Dr. Charshee McIntyre documented in her book The Criminalization of a Race, ever since we arrived in this country as enslaved Africans, the criminal justice system has been used as a mechanism to control, constrain and detain people of African descent based on the false premise of White superiority and Black inferiority. Largely, this has meant that Whites have had a different and more positive experience with the police and the courts. For example, after emancipation, many states and local governments passed vagrancy laws, specifically forbidding individuals or groups to loiter in public places. These laws were specifically targeted at the formerly enslaved Africans, the vast majority of whom were without land or property in their newfound state of “freedom.” With no “40 acres and a mule” or other provisions to give them a meaningful stake in society, they were prime candidates to be disproportionately victimized by these newly enacted laws. As a result, formerly enslaved Africans were disproportionately incarcerated in the penal institutions in the South, where many of them were leased out as labor for private companies in the infamous “convict lease system.”
As Blacks migrated in large numbers to urban areas in the North and West, the role of the police was to contain and control the new immigrants inside the confines of what Dr. Kenneth B. Clark termed “dark ghettos.” Historically Blacks in urban areas have tended to view the police as an occupying army sent in to “crack heads” to maintain peace/security among a suspicious, unruly, lawbreaking and culturally different people. Hence, police brutality has been endemic to the Black experience in America. Euro-ethnics/Whites do not understand Black fear, anxiety, anger and suspicion of the police and the criminal justice system because their experience has been different. With rare exception, they have been treated as citizens while people of African descent have been treated as intruders, suspects and criminals. Institutional racism abides in the criminal justice system.
The so-called “war on drugs” is another example of the difference in approach the criminal justice system takes toward the Black and White communities. Even though Whites consume drugs at a higher rate than Blacks do, the primary battleground for the “war” has been Black communities, particularly aimed at Black men. Employing “quality of life” and “zero tolerance” policing methods and paramilitary units as the enforcement mechanism, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Black men have been stopped and frisked on the streets for drugs and weapons or pulled over and had their cars searched. It is as if an entire race/community has been “profiled.” The war on drugs has exacerbated tensions between the police and the Black community. Little wonder that a recent New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that 66% of Black men feel they have been stopped by the police because of their race as compared to only 9% of White men.
Moreover, because of disparities in sentencing between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine, which is trafficked heavily in the Black community, hundreds of thousands of Black people, mostly men, are disproportionately incarcerated in the prison jail-industrial complex. Things have hardly changed since the vagrancy laws were adopted and targeted at the Black community after emancipation.
If Professor Gates were not a “prominent” person, he would be in jail. The real story is that thousands of ordinary Black men have similar encounters with the criminal justice system every day in America and land in jail. Thousands more are routinely stopped, frisked, humiliated and grudgingly permitted to go their way. Some do not survive these encounters at all. What is certain is that virtually Black men in America carry the history/memory, if not some personal testimony, of this oppressive relationship with the criminal justice system just below the surface of their consciousness. Most Whites in America have no such memory.
Straining to contain himself in the face of increasing hostility among Whites, President Obama was correct to suggest that the police incident in Cambridge is potentially a “teachable moment.” Race still matters in America. If we are ever to achieve a “post racial” society, then this nation must stop being in denial about the persistence of racism in American life and address the disparities in experiences and perceptions of Whites and Blacks head on. Otherwise, ordinary Black folks will continue to bear the day-to-day burden of being routinely profiled in America, out of sight and out of mind until an injustice to another prominent Black man or woman catches the attention of the media.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.