Regardless of the overwhelming facts, statistics and every other indicator in between that point to the ongoing problem of racial profiling in America, there are groups of people, mainly on the right, who somehow think the problem rests alone in one Harvard professor’s mind or in President Obama’s “stupidly” comment. It is not surprising that these same “conservatives” were also hell bent on labeling Judge Sotomayor a racist. But I am not sure if it is more ironic or pathetic that these individuals feel the need to cry reverse-racism at the drop of the dime, quicker even than their so-called “victimized” minorities do.
Uncharacteristic of the media these days, there was actually a decent discussion of the issue, including a criticism of how the press covered the issue, on This Week with George Stephanopoulos today, in part because the conservative panelists – George Will and David Brooks – are probably the only ideologically consistent and intellectually honest conservative journalists on the market. The same can be said on the side of the spectrum of Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. For example, I would agree with George Will that it was stupid for Obama to allow himself to get drawn into the controversy. Nevertheless, Paul Krugman also made the obvious point that Obama’s “stupid” remark was inopportune precisely because it is was so fundamentally accurate, and we all know that saying truths is politically dangerous.
The way I look at it, we are confronted with two issues: the problem of racial profiling, of which Mr. Gates’ case arguably pales in comparison to the real problem of racial profiling, and the relationship between the police and citizens.
As mentioned, there is absolutely no doubt that racial profiling is a problem in American society. It is even a problem in Europe. In Spain, for example, non whites and non Europeans, especially blacks and Arabs, are consistently stopped by the police and required to produce their papers, essentially equating looking foreign to probable cause of having committed a crime.
Recently in Madrid, the police have been given orders to meet strict monthly quotas detailing the numbers and countries of origin of undocumented immigrants to be detained and deported (with a preference for immigrants from countries that are closer and cheaper to deport to). The initial reaction of citizens is that this is a good idea. The standard argument is that if you’ve not done anything wrong, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Right? The conceptual problem with that argument is that it sounds brutally like Orwell’s 1984. The practical problem, as many of my friends have attested to, is that anyone who fits the physical profile is constantly being stopped by the police. I have already heard countless stories about the police hanging out at elementary schools and checking the papers of maids walking children to school, at bus stops, in front of foreign embassies. Parents come back from work to find that their children never came home because the maid, who had forgotten her papers when she went out, was taken into police custody.
I mention the Spanish example because it perfectly describes what the Founding Fathers intended with the Fourth Amendment. With their experience of colonial rule where the authorities could freely search your person, enter your home, or take possession of your belongings, the Founders hoped to protect the citizens of the newly developed nation from unreasonable governmental interference into our persons, property and privacy.
Unfortunately as a practical matter, the Fourth Amendment creates no cause of action for the citizen whose rights have been violated. So while one of the goals of the Amendment is to protect us from being hassled by the police, the only practical protection that the Amendment affords us is that any evidence derived from the illegal search or seizure cannot be used against us at trial. The police officers are even granted qualified immunity against civil suits. In other words, when we have done absolutely nothing wrong but the police have illegally and unconstitutionally searched us and interfered in our private lives, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
Now imagine that being stopped and searched by the police is not an isolated incident but an inevitable and commonplace reality for which you are absolutely powerless. It is no wonder that your entire community distrusts the police. White people like myself and all the poor-me white conservatives crying Obama is a racist do not have this relationship with the police. It would be both disingenuous and intellectually irresponsible to claim otherwise. As Donna Brazile explained on This Week, she grew up in a household where her parents gave her brothers very specific instructions on how to stay safe when being stopped by the police. That kind of conversation does not occurs in white families. Why? Look at the numbers.
As Charles Blow wrote last week in the New York Times,
In fact, last year the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York law firm specializing in human rights, released a damning study of the racial-profiling practices of the New York Police Department. It found that more than 80 percent of those stopped and frisked were black or Hispanic. The report also said that when stopped, 45 percent of blacks and Hispanics were frisked, compared with 29 percent of whites, even though white suspects were 70 percent more likely than black suspects to have a weapon.
This doesn’t even take into account the huge disparity between African Americans and whites with regards to criminal sentencing and incarceration. The facts are there: African Americans disproportionately go to jail more often and for longer prison sentences than whites who have committed the same or similar crimes. As a nation, we should be embarrassed by these numbers. Furthermore, racial profiling is ineffective as a remedy against crime. As a matter of fact, a recent study on the use of racial profiling in Europe to stop terrorism has shown the tactic to be “worse than useless in combating terrorism”.
With regards to Gates, it is possible that he was not profiled. But even if he was nothing more than a pompous Harvard intellectual, that itself does not mean we should ignore the reality of racial profiling as a dispiriting trait of American reality.
There is another part of our culture with respect to the police that the Gates case highlights. In the U.S., you cannot disagree with the police. Period. In Europe, I have witnessed countless examples of citizens engaged in lively disagreements with the police, for which in the U.S. they would have been immediately neutralized, handcuffed and taken in.
But my favorite story is from going through security at the airport in Casablanca, Morocco. A man in line was very upset that the police, after having x-rayed his luggage, insisted on opening his suitcase. A huge argument erupted between the officer and the passenger to the point where I was expecting that the man, true American fashion, would be beaten down on the spot and dragged off to a harsh interrogation room. Rather, another police officer and passenger intervened to mediate in the dispute. Ultimately, the scene was resolved by having the mean literally two hug it out. Yes, the police officer and the passenger gave each other a big hug and that was the end of the story. Everyone went on with their lives, no harm, no foul.
In the U.S., though, we are expected to be fully obedient to and even intimidated by the police no matter what. Now, I understand that police officers must treat every situation with extreme caution and severity because they never know the dangers that may lie ahead. But that fact itself – that America is populated with potentially armed and violent people – is unique in the industrialized world and is not something to be proud of.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the facts in the best light of all parties involved. Imagine that the Cambridge police did not in fact profile Gates and that Gates arrived home after a long trip, was exhausted, cranky, even rude. There was no racism, just one limping middle age man yelling that it was his house. Once the police ascertained that it was his house, why didn’t they just leave him alone to continue his rant in peace behind closed doors? Had they done just that, instead of arresting him for being obnoxious, this entire story would have ended. If we take race out of the picture, all we are left with is a Soviet style police force. And as Paul Krugman argued, arresting a man for his temper is stupid.