Racial profiling: Real life mirrors fiction

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

It seems almost fictional: A well-respected policeman arrests a well-respected Ivy League professor for “disorderly conduct.” An honorable President, known for his measured rhetoric, carelessly criticizes the officer’s police department for acting “stupidly.” Then the President remediates his faux pas,  offering to help resolve the conflict by inviting the police officer and professor to share a beer with him at the White House.

Hitting the national fan
When you love to read, you tend to make connections between everyday realities and memorable books. That is why I thought about the riveting 2002 novel The Emperor of Ocean Park when the bad news about the unfortunate arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. began to hit the national fan this past week.

Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, who writes scholarly books and articles as well as suspense novels such as The Emperor of Ocean Park, naturally came to mind as I pondered the uproar surrounding Gates, one of the nation’s most distinguished African-American scholars. Carter, like Gates, is African American and highly accomplished.

What happened and why?
At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a quick summary of what happened: Gates had returned home from a one-week trip to China where he was filming part of a PBS series. He and his cab driver forced open the jammed front door of his own home. A neighbor, apparently unfamiliar with Gates, suspected a break-in and called the police.

Gates account of the incident and Police Sgt. James Crowley’s report vary significantly about the degree of their mutual inconsideration.

Gates was arrested after shouting one too many times at Crowley, who is white and serves on the Cambridge, Massachusetts force.  He reportedly accused Crowley of racial prejudice and profiling. Ironically,  Crowley is well known for teaching other officers how to avoid profiling.

Fiction mirroring reality
The Gates incident reminded me of a passage in The Emperor of Ocean Park in which an African-American law professor is nearly frisked by campus police at his own Ivy League college after calling them for help. The fictional professor is polite to the police, but fearful.

“All right, sir,” says a heavy white voice…. The way the officer pronounces the word, sir, although not quite mocking enough to constitute a clear insult, is definitely in the ballpark. “Let’s just keep our hands in front of us, shall we?”….

I do as I am told, holding out my blameless, trembling hands for the officers to see. I want to be calm….I am not. I am frightened. I am seething. I am humiliated….A hot shame rises in my cheeks, as though I have been caught on the brink of a terrible deed. I actually feel guilty, of whatever they like….I have never experienced our nation’s ruthless racial divide with quite this vigor.

I am, of course, not alone in making this connection to Carter’s novels as I later discover in an article from Inside Higher Ed. The online journal, in its July 22 article, said that Carter “felt like he was watching a scene unfold from one of his own books.”

Blacks draw suspicion in “posh environs”
Inside Higher Ed
went on to say that Carter’s fiction “often illustrates how wealthy blacks draw suspicion in posh environs like private beaches or Ivy League campuses.”

Carter is one of Gates’ friends. He is renowned for his scholarly as well as his popular writings and is careful with his words. He did not refer to the incident as racial profiling, but Inside Higher Ed quoted him as saying, “If it can happen to Henry Louis Gates, possibly the most prominent black scholar in the country, and in his home town, then it can indeed happen to any of us.”

Carter’s novels are great reading, because he is a powerful and meaningful storyteller. But they are particularly worthwhile right now as a lens through which to understand why African Americans continue to feel so wary of white culture and why we haven’t yet arrived at what some are calling a “post-racial” America.

Incivility doesn’t equal incarceration
The news accounts and commentary I read did not say anything about Gates being frisked. However, it is clear that both he and Sgt. Crowley felt violated by what transpired during the arrest and the days that followed.

Recent photos of both Gates and Crowley show a “deer in the headlights” quality that make you want to say, “Now, now. It will be alright. Can’t we just  take a deep breath and discuss this.” That, of course, is the beauty of President Barack Obama’s idea to invite Gates and Crowley for a calming meeting of the minds over a cool beer.

Denver Post Op/Ed columnist Vincent Carroll, who is white, wrote in a well-reasoned commentary on July 26, “This is America, home of the free. Can’t we yell at a cop without finding ourselves handcuffed in the back seat of a cruiser?”

Carroll backed up this commonsensical question with information about a 1987 Supreme Court decision that “struck down a municipal ordinance making it unlawful” to shout at a police officer. He further stated that “we don’t hire police to enforce good manners.” However, he made his distaste for the professor’s demeanor clear by calling him an “arrogant loudmouth.”

Back to fiction: Imagination fills in the big picture
In trying to get the big picture of what went wrong in the Gates incident, I discovered that it was impossible to find all the puzzle pieces among the countless news stories and commentary.

My imagination began to fill in the holes, creating useful fictions that may actually be facts. Perhaps Gates—exhausted from long hours of work in a foreign country and from jet lag—just lost it. Perhaps Crowley—tired of being verbally abused day after day as many police are—lost it as well.

Finally, perhaps—despite the sly comments of talk show hosts and callers—there was no calculation on the part of President Obama when he blurted the “st” word. Maybe he was just acting human and speaking his mind.

(All teachers reading this article know that that saying “stupid” in a school environment has become almost as dangerous as accidentally letting a four-letter word slip.)

Furthermore, my imagination continued to suggest, perhaps Professor Gates, Sgt. Crowley, and President Obama inadvertently did a good thing by tripping over their respective senses of self-esteem.

A long overdue national discussion
Obama, Gates, and Crowley have inspired a long overdue national discussion about how far the U.S. has come and how much further it must go to rise above our histories of racism and—let’s admit it—prejudice, or at least lack of empathy, toward the police. (Take a look at “Ten Reasons Cops Are Different” on HeavyBadge.com.)

Lots of good storytelling is going on, and it isn’t all fiction. Painful accounts ofl racial profiling incidents are rising daily to the surface of our media and national consciousness. A few are listed below. By reading and discussing these stories—as well as sites such as HeavyBadge—and by trying to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, we can help promote understanding and civility.

Recommended reading
Racial profiling:“Welcome to the ‘club’,” by Charles M. Blow
“Old story, in black and white,” by Bill Johnson
“Suspicions that still divide us,” by Susan Greene
“Are we obligated to be submissive to the police,” by Rich Rodgers


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