Dr. Henry Louis Gates and the Rude Awakening; Racial Profiling, Crime and Criminalization: What is the Solution?
By Fahim A. Knight-EL
Just recently the distinguished professor Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the campus of Harvard University. Dr. Gates and his daughter were returning from a trip abroad to China, but upon arrival to his home; he immediately noticed that his front door was jammed (he asked his limousine driver to assist him) and after experiencing problems with gaining access to the front door of his home. Thus, he proceeded to the back door where a neighbor called 9-11 to report two suspicious black men (but according to the released 9-11 tape the caller did not say two black men) breaking and entering. (Reference: Derrick Bell; “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism”).
Someone could rightly argue that the neighbor was being vigilant and prudent in notifying law enforcement authority of something that she perceived to be suspicious and looked like criminal intent. Her actions under ordinary circumstances would be considered to be nothing short of a good neighbor doing the right thing, as far as being the eyes and ears of her neighbor’s home, in particular in their absence. (Reference: Cornel West; “Race Matters”).
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a Harvard University tenure professor and is world respected in the field of academia, as a historian and a social scientist and has taught at this prestigious Ivy League University for over fifteen (15) years. Dr. Gates is one of the most recognized faces in particular on Harvard University campus and if not in all of America in general. (Reference: Claud Anderson; “Black Labor, White Wealth: The Search for Power and Economic Justice”).
The attending law enforcement officer asked Dr. Gates for his identification—he eventually gave the officer two pieces of i.d—Massachusetts drivers license and an official Harvard University i.d. which verified that he was the resident of that said location and also that he was an employee at Harvard University. Gates alleges that after showing the officers proof of residency and identification, the officer was still not satisfied and continued to harass Professor Gates and demanded that the professor step outside of his home, in which it was further alleged that Dr. Gates began to express racial epithets at the arresting white officer. Racial Profiling is defined by McGraw Hill Online Learning Center as "the practice of constructing a set of characteristics or behaviors based on race and using that set of characteristics to decide whether an individual might be guilty of some crime and therefore worthy of investigation or arrest"
(Reference: Michael Eric Dyson; “Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line).
The officer eventually arrested Dr. Gates and charged him with disorderly conduct where he was handcuffed and taking into police custody. These bogus charges were eventually dropped by the Cambridge Police Department before the case could be heard in a court of law. This incident is important on many different levels because the professor himself characterized his treatment and the arrest as racial profiling. Perhaps to the arresting white officer it did not matter to him that Dr. Gates was this renowned Harvard professor and may be in his own socialization experiences he viewed Professor Gates no different than he and most of white America views the larger segment of African American men. (Reference: Ronald Weitzer and Steven Tuch; “Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform”).
The media consistently criminalized black men as being dangerous and larceny prone. Thus, you can almost view any six o-clock news program within most major cities across America and you will always see young African American men seen in handcuffs, gangbanging images, peddling drugs, committing robbery, committing violent assaults, arm robbery, etc., projected as social deviants. These images become inculcated in the psyche of a society that has been steeped in a history of racial injustice and discrimination and worst yet it reinforces racial bias and old stereotypes. (Reference Haki Madhubuti; “Black Men, Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The Afrikan American Family in Transition”).
Many whites and even some blacks are arguing that the racial playing field has somewhat being made, level, balance and equal with the election of America’s first African American president in Barack Obama. Some are even foolish enough to believe that America with the election of President Obama has no more race issues. This writer has consistently argued with other bloggers from different countries and nations that have bought into this false visual illusion that America has remedied its over four hundred fifty year old racial dilemma. What else possible could blacks want from the United States Government even 2009?
President Obama on July 22, 2009 during his prime time health care speech to the American people, which at the end of the speech; he was asked by a reporter to weigh in on the Professor Gates incident. The president was very critical of the Cambridge Police Department and somewhat supported his friend Dr. Gates version of the incident without having all the facts. I must admit to my readers, as much as, I appreciated President Obama’s candor and honesty, but as commander-in-chief he exercised poor judgment and feeble diplomacy relative to his remarks in this matter.
Someone should have advised the president to never weigh-in on a local issue with such conviction and absolute definitiveness, and as a trained lawyer this is something he should have already known (his comments were based on shear raw emotions and were outside of the statesmen aura that encompass being the president of the United States). President Obama is a political animal and after realizing that his comments were being challenged by powerful and influential police lobbies and police unions he recanted his statement. This had the potential to politically backfire and blowup in his face and you better believe conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity of Fox News were licking their chops and were going to exploit the president’s comments to its least common denominator.
The president defused this potential political fiasco by becoming proactive and inviting Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Police Sergeant James Crowley to the White House for a beer and he was now serving as mediator, as opposed to being a lightening rod for racial tensions. But here is were I stand—President Obama’s original comments were perhaps his honest feelings and I believe the conversation about race and racism have to start from a point of honesty and not be swayed by what is politically correct. Gates and Crowley are symbols of a much larger debate and although, these two individuals having a beer with President Obama does represent a sensible gesture in this matter but serves only as symbol without real substance. But it will have little to no impact on the larger debate of race in America that has been circumvented and evaded for over four centuries and I do not think having a beer with the president is the solution to this intriguing dilemma—race in America.
President Bill Clinton at least established a ceremonial office called the Race Commission where he appointed African American historian the late Dr. John Hope Franklin as the chairman. This office was put in place to study and examine race relations, but no real initiatives came out of the office of Race Commission because those that set it up was dishonest and had already prescribed preconditions relative to the perimeters of the race debate. For example, I did not believe that Dr. Franklin had the latitude to inject reparations in the discussion and without this essential plank there can be no real discussion relative to race in America. (Reference: John Hope Franklin; “Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin”).
Earlier this year President Obama and the United States refused to attend the World Conference on Racism that was held in Geneva, Switzerland. Some believe that the United States was capitulating to Zionist interest because the conveners of the conference had defined and characterized Zionism as a form of racism and of course the Israelis deemed this definition as unacceptable. This also led to the Israelis along with Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, and Australia boycotting the World Conference on Racism. Perhaps all these European nations that did not attend should have attended and due to their absence they may have missed some teachable and learnable moments.
Shame on these nations and this includes the United States of America and Israel for demonstrating this type of arrogance and irresponsibility in their nonparticipation in one of the most important discussion that still confronts humanity, which is racism. These nations made all types of excuses for their derelict in duty and many are guilty of racial atrocities ranging from ethnic cleansing, extermination, genocide, etc. They do not want to have to answer to what is morally right and/or be exposed to the entire world as practitioners of past or present racial injustices. (Reference: Eric Mann; “Dispatches From Durban: Firsthand Commentaries on the World Conference Against Racism and Post-September 11 Movement Strategies”).
The United States was using Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadingjad attendance as a smokescreen for one of the reasons of why America should not participate. How could the United States first black president having the largest bully pulpit in the world miss this golden opportunity to dialog with the world on the topic racism? Surely his absence should not be viewed as an indication that America has no problems in that area.
This latest incident with Professor Gates served as proof positive that this over 400 year old problem is still very much unresolved and since America has never had a serious conversation about race she will forever be haunted by her dark past. If initially President Obama felt that Dr. Gates was perhaps racially profiled, this is a sign that even the man that holds the highest office in the world wasn’t prepared to overlook the Gates incident as having the possibility of being tainted and motivated by race. The United States did not attend the World Conference on Racism because it has not come to grips with its own racist historical past and our government knew that the history of Chattel Slavery—and the history of racism, discrimination and social injustice would not escape international scrutiny and this historical denial forever leaves room for incidents like Dr. Gates to continue to garner headlines because of the emotions of an unresolved historical past.
Blacks want total freedom, justice and equality—let’s start with reparations for 310 years of slavery and forced labor that gave America her start, which propelled America to great economic heights. We do not want just a conditional weak and no real substance apology from the U.S. Government and allow this meaningless overture to be used as a placate to overlook the greatest criminal act ever committed in human history—Chattel Slavery. (Reference: Raymond Windbush; “Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations”).
President Obama recently visited Elmina Castle in Ghana, Africa as a black man whose part African descendent but who can easily trace his father’s roots to a tribe in Kenya, Africa where his grandmother (father’s mother) and family still lives in this village. But 40-50 million African Americans ancestors who exited the door of no return, have no way of determining (yes this writer is familiar with the DNA science that allows blacks to be tested in which this at least points to a region of Africa that African American may have originated) who their African ancestors on the continent of Africa were. (Reference: John Henrik Clarke: “Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust”).
Perhaps white America is still in denial of the magnitude of this crime—it robbed a people of their humanity. This writer does not have the time for the victimization game as many liberals and conservatives try to hurl out when this conversation seems to surface in order to minimize and deemphasize the magnitude of the crime. Black people were literally stripped of their land, culture, language, religion, etc., and unlike the Jews we have no home and a language we can call our own.
Elmina Castle, the old slave dungeon off the coast of Accra, Ghana represented the demise of Africans being forcibly transported to an alien country by an alien people. What type of people who would commit such a heinous crime?
Perhaps seeing and visiting Elmina Castle would have more effect on First Lady Michelle Obama than on her immigrant husband. He is more sympathetic to the Jewish Holocaust than he is to the African Holocaust. There is no Holocaust that measures in comparison to the 310 years of Chattel Slavery that has almost destroyed a people’s culture linkage to a home that they can call their own.
This incident with Dr. Gates is just a reminder that you can not legislate social attitudes—racism is a disease and the cure just does not lie in passing laws; but, how do we change the psychology of a society that historically evolved based on racial prejudices which created racial dynamics that is still very much unresolved in 2009? Dr. Gates arrest should remind these African American Elitist and the petit bourgeoisie blacks that their class, economic and social status do not render them any exceptions from the overt and/or covert racial rules in America. (Reference: Naim Akbar; “Chains and Images of Psychological Slavery”).
Chip Smith in his book titled, “The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy” stated, “Louis Gates, the distinguished Harvard professor, commented at the times he has been stopped by the police for being at the "wrong the place at the wrong time"- or more accurately, as a result of racial profiling. His experience fits with the unfunny joke: "What do you call a black Ph. D.? "A n _________.” Similarly, while the O. J. Simpson case showed that wealthy defendants can pay their way out of even the most heinous charges, it also showed that a prominent black person can have evidence manipulated by racist police - just as readily as the ordinary people are arrested in Philadelphia and LA during the 1990s whose cases were eventually reversed for the same reason.” (Reference: Chip Smith; The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy”).
Thus, being black in America, it is what is, and although privilege and class have their benefits, but race always supersedes these variables and Dr. Gates recently found this out the hard way. This incident I hope will serve as a good teachable moment and if nothing else it has reminded us all that yet we have made tremendous progress in America, but the incident like the one that took place with professor Gates is a quite reminder that in reality, hasn’t much changed in spite of the vast social, economic, and political progress blacks have made since their arrival to these shores of North America. (Reference: Tim Wise; “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son”).
Policing, the judicial system and criminal justice system have to find better ways to alleviate the social antagonism that seems to always exist between the “system” and African Americans. I remember right here in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina a few years ago the former Governor of Virginia Douglas Wilder was harassed and thrown to the grown by white security personnel at RDU Airport while he is yelling that he is the former Governor—for the record this brother is very light skinned complexion and is perhaps less than one generation removed from a white ancestral line. But this did not matter, he was viewed and treated no different than any other black man in America.
It appears that sensitivity and diversity training pertaining to law enforcement officers still is not enough to sensitize some white law enforcement into understanding the culture, and race/ethnic backgrounds of non-Caucasians who might be confronted with violating the law. Moreover, we are just as suspicious of white authority figure because of the lack of trust that exist between the two races and cultures and often there is a feeling that law enforcement does not have our best interest at stake—these historical and cultural differences creates tension and often time this leads to African Americans having a higher percentage of arrest records and eventually higher percentages of convictions. However, unlike Professor Gates, the poor do not have the economic resources or the political clout which to wage a public relations battle or to finance a competent legal defense. (Reference: Steve Holbert and Lisa Rose; “The Color of Guilt & Innocence: Racial Profiling and Police Practices in America”).
This writer was sought of delighted this incident happened to Professor Gates because so often some of our black professionals have forgotten from whence they came and incidents like this will remind them that in America to a certain degree prestige and money is not necessarily this great equalizer—African American race is lumped in the same category. Many of these “Negroes” make every attempt to join the white world and once he/she is neglected or rebuffed they are quick to incite other blacks into believing that they are victims of racial discrimination. But in reality, other than skin color, the masses of black people have nothing in common with these elitist blacks. This class of African Americans uses blacks when it is convenient to further their political, economic and social agenda. Professor Gates received what he needed, which was a wake up call and you will never find me carrying no picket sign and fighting on behalf of this reactionary Negroe. (Reference: E. Franklin Frazier; “Black Bourgeoisie”).
Majority of the criminal behavior can be correlated to the economic divide. There has to be a redistribution of wealth in the United States, where Black people and so-called minorities can equally share in the benefits of acquiring a good education, training, adequate homeownership, profitable employment or are taught what it means to acquire ownership of businesses.
Justice is surely not blind in America and it is no coincidence that over 75 % of the prison inmate populations are black and Hispanic; it’s by design because I do not believe these races have a higher propensity to commit crimes more so than any other race or nationality.
There has been a lot of talk in United States about finding innovative and creative ways to bringing under control the staggering U.S. prison population of 2. 3 million; we have the largest amount of people incarcerated than any other industrialized nation in the world. You can not reduce the prison population unless you aggressively work to change criminal racial profiling on the street level; thus, where law enforcement unjustly targeted young black males for arrest, this is the initial stage of bringing Blacks into the criminal justice system and it becomes a feeder system for the Prison Industrial Complex. (Reference: “Blacks in the Criminal Justice System”)
The next issue is that most Black criminal defendants upon entering the judicial system receive poor legal defenses because of not having the financial resources to hire private legal counsel and is often granted a state appointed counsel in whom many of these public defenders have to manage huge caseloads and are overworked and have limited resources at their disposal. This ordinarily leads to so-called minorities and poor defendants receiving longer and stiffer prison sentences more so than other races.
America cannot reduce the 2.3 million-prison populations, unless they first deal with certain variables—economic, class, race and the educational situation in this country. The cycle of poverty and social despair is rooted in a system of injustice, unfairness, inequality and prejudice which have always catered to white privilege to the detriment of the elevation of those who looked different from the dominant society and culture. The entire industrial prison complex idea is very profitable and big business and even the privatization of prisons are extremely rewarding to those companies that bid on these state and federal prison contracts
African Americans "economic disadvantage status" often render them victims in a very profitable system. In approximately 1987 the United States Congress and the United States Courts passed the Sentence Reform Acts, where the U.S. Courts and the United States Department of Justice (Federal Bureau of Prisons) passed a law that required all convicted defendants shall be mandated to serve an 85% active sentence term of incarcerated in federal custody for violating federal stature (also many state department of corrections adopted the 85% active prison sentencing rule for defendants who were convicted of violating state law). This legislation and law is interpreted to meaning that convicted federal and state defendants (the majority which is black and Hispanics) will be committed to serving longer prison sentences without the benefit of parole (the Department of Justice has actual phased out the US Parole Commission).In addition, Congress passed mandatory sentencing guidelines, moreover stripping U.S. Judges of judicial flexibility in the areas of determining sentencing length and terms. It has been a criminal justice travesty for first time offenders who entered US Courts having misdemeanors and perhaps did not belong in prison and was more deserving of an intermediary sanction. However, these individuals were receiving active prison sentences based on United States law and policy.
The federal government, state governments, and local governments have disinvested (since the early 1980s) in our youth and this has had negative implications in the urban communities across the United States of America where poor and oppressed African Americans live. For example, we grew up in a time where the various governmental entities saw the need of having neighborhood recreation centers in which you had the opportunity to re-channel that youth energy into structured play—by engaging in table tennis, checkers club, chess clubs, wrestling clubs, swimming, baseball, football, cheerleading, basketball, sewing and knitting classes, track and field, etc.
Moreover, often the recreation centers personnel served as role models and for many of us they provided a father image that we did not get at home. These things were provided within the recreational centers that played and intricate part in our socialization process and overall social development. We could almost count on structure everyday Monday thru Saturday from 3:30 pm-8:30 pm.
The United States Government found it to be more profitable to invest in the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex, as opposed to supporting local municipalities that were providing positive social direction and keeping black youth occupied and off the streets; these recreation centers were safe havens that insulated us from being caught up in violence and drugs and negative behavior.
Also, gangs were not as pervasive as it is today, but some thirty (30) years later street gangs are pervasive throughout our communities and schools. So, young African Americans have this additional peer pressure to deal with and it has almost consumed an entire generation of our children and created a sense of disillusionment. We are confronted in poor black urban areas (not just in north, but the south, east and west as well) with an astronomical high school dropout rate, truancy, teenage pregnancy, high homicide rate (between the age group of 12-30), suicide rates amongst teenagers have risen ten fold, high, communicable disease rate of HIV/AIDS and other STDs are steadily on the rise, teenage drug addiction, gang affiliation, etc. We just can not throw dollars at this problem and expect a positive social outcome and not take a hands on approach in resolving these issues plaguing America:
Our focus also has to be saving the youth and exposing them to a socialization scheme beyond their involvement in street gangs. We refer to this as taking preventative measures and trying to reach our youth before they become a criminal justice statistic. We have to establish relationships with local school districts, where perhaps so-called problem children are identified and we have to find resources to offer intervention and mentoring program (big brother and big sister programs). This calls for establishing successful community outreach relations—community based partnerships relative to building bridges with churches, civic groups, community organizers, recreation departments and demanding more from our most precious commodity—athletes and entertainers, in particular high profile Hip Hop Rap Musician getting thems to endorse the goals and objectives of our programs and this alone will win the program huge credibility. This strategy will automatically lower the incarceration and recidivism rate amongst this young and vulnerable population.
The majority of the people who commit crimes often do it as a tool of survival and trying to overcome poverty and society neglect. We have to attack illiteracy and find methods to overcome our own privileged life styles and not appear so distant from the community based on our own status, class and economic stability, which becomes irrelevant, if the masses are poor, suffering and oppressed. Thus the people we are seeking help have to see us as being believable and genuinely concerned about their humanity.
1). We need to find people (civic groups, business groups, political groups, religious groups, African Centered study groups, educational groups, etc.) who share the reality that there is a problem, which has reached epidemic proportions and strategize on how we can address these problem, one community at a time and/or one section of town at a time. This will require the faith community, elected officials and just grassroots—ordinary people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and go to young brothers and sisters in the streets and establish a dialogue in order to find out, what is it that we are not doing as parents, ministers, imams, teachers, etc. WE NEED TO LISTEN TO THESE YOUNG BROTHERS AND SISTERS WHO ARE IN THE STREETS. Let them tell us what we can do better as a community.
2). We need a small economic system in place where once we establish relationships with our youth; we can offer them a legitimate way to earn money because many of them are taking part in criminal behavior in order to earn money by hustling, stealing, selling drugs, etc., and in some instances this is the economic livelihood of families. Many of them are part of the Hip-Hop Culture and love Rap music; you can entice them by establishing small studios and allowing them to use their creativity to make Rap demos and if nothing else ask the community to purchase their music and help those who have serious musical potential and talent to marketed and promote their demos to the various music labels within the professional music industry. Music (Rap) appears to get most young African Americans attention.
We should open up our Church Life Centers and allow youth to have free play and openly promote that these facilities are open to the public. Seek black men and women who would volunteer a small portion of their time to this cause of salvation. We really do not have much choice, if we are serious about our people. Back to the music we have many old heads in our religious organizations while back in the world was engaged within the arena of entertainment and they can be mentors for these young aspiring Rap artists in our community looking to breaking into the industry. We can establish studios in our churches.
3). We must call for a GANG TRUCE and ask these young men and women in our community to come and sit and have dinner and shower them with unconditional love. Tell them that we need their help to stop the killing. Connecticut use to be or it might still be, the number one GUN MAKING CAPITOL in the U.S. (Colt and Smith and Wesson) was huge gun makers in Connecticut . Why can’t we ask these GUN MAKERS to donated some of their monetary resources to assist in reconstructing our community by investing in the most vulnerable and the least of these by building safe haven centers and asking the local governments to provide them with tax credits and/or other incentives for their investment?
4). Athletics: We must get back to establishing church league basketball teams (in particular Midnight basketball Mon-Sat high crime days and hours), but recruiting players from the church and the community. Let’s ask the members of the church to adopt one child and ask those in our community to financially adopt one child. Some of our children have never gone to a professional basketball game (or a professional athletic event period); we must be willing to expose them to a world outside of their community.
5). We might even have to become a little more innovative by giving away money and literally paying students who remain in school, in particular those that are matriculating academically. This will serve as small incentives to keep them motivated or purchase the latest X-Box game or pay for latest blackberry phone fully loaded for a year; if a child is willing to commit and turn their lives around then these things become small investments.
6). Lets buy back the guns and/or trade the guns for computers and video games and/or give away free Rap concert tickets to youth who unconditionally turn in guns; we must do anything to stop the killing.
Minister Farrakhan asked black men at the Million Man March to make a pledge.
I pledge that from this day forward, I will strive to love my Brother as I love myself.
I pledge from this day forward, I will strive to improve myself spiritually, morally, socially, politically and economically for the benefit myself, my family and my people.
I pledge that I will strive to build businesses, build houses, build hospitals, build factories, and enter into international trade, for the good of myself, and my people.
I pledge, that from this forward, I will never raise my hand with a knife or a gun to beat, hurt, or shoot any member of my family, or any human being, except in self-defense.
I pledge, that from this forward, I will never abuse my wife by striking her or disrespecting her, for she is the mother of my children and the producer of my future.
I pledge, that from this forward, I will never engage in the abuse of children--little boys or little girls--for sexual gratification. But I will let them grow in peace to be strong men and women for the future of our people.I will never again use the 'B' word to describe any female, but particular my own black sister.
I pledge, that from this forward, I will not poison my body with drugs or that which is destructive to my health and well being.
I pledge, that from this forward, I will support Black newspapers, Black radio, and black television. I will support Black artists who clean up their acts to show respect for themselves and respect for their people, and respect for the ears of the human family.
Fahim A. Knight-EL Chief Researcher for KEEPING IT REAL THINK TANK located in Durham, NC; our mission is to inform African Americans and all people of goodwill, of the pending dangers that lie ahead; as well as decode the symbolisms and reinterpreted the hidden meanings behind those who operate as invisible forces, but covertly rules the world. We are of the belief that an enlightened world will be better prepared to throw off the shackles of ignorance and not be willing participants for the slaughter. Our MOTTO is speaking truth to power. Fahim A. Knight-EL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay Awake Until We Meet Again,
Fahim A. Knight-EL