Gating the Debate about Race……………

I’ve got a new term to add to the American colloquial lexicon: Gating – to close off discussion of a sensitive cultural or political issue (e.g. race, torture, abortion) by declaring an incident a “teachable moment” sitting down for a well-publicized outdoor summit (preferably over a low-cost beverage like beer or soda – coffee & water are too expensive) preferably with an important figure (like a current or former President) and then making a documentary about the experience to demonstrate how well the process works.

I’m dismayed at the number of people who insist that because Prof. Gates and his supporters think Sgt. Crowley’s actions were racially-biased, they are accusing him of being a racist. Alleging that someone has treated you unfairly because you’re black is not the same as accusing them of being racist. It’s unfortunate the media regularly conflates these issues – they are  quite distinct. Many people, white and black engage in racially discriminatory acts, that doesn’t make them racists. Most African-Americans have learned to be nuanced in making these distinctions as Pres. Obama demonstrated in his remarks when he said the Cambridge Police Dept “acted stupidly” in arresting Prof. Gates and taking him to the station. He didn’t mention Sgt. Crowley by name and didn’t single out anyone. I believe he was totally correct in his assessment that it was “stupid” for the police to arrest Gates given the facts as he knew them at the time. Little that’s been revealed since then contradicts or undermines Pres. Obama’s original assessment.

Focusing on Pres Obama’s use of the word “stupidly”  (debatably inartful) has enabled the media to ignore the facts underlying the arrest, including the fact that if the incident had not become a political issue, Sgt. Crowley would be facing a police investigation and possible reprimand for his behavior and apparent falsification of records – as the audio tapes and other corroborating evidence do not support his written version of events.

For those New Yorkers who maintain racial profiling is not a real problem, contemplate this: Police stopped and interrogated New Yorkers 171,094 times between January and March, and more than 151,000 of those individuals were sent on their way without charges. Approximately 89,000 of those stopped were black, 56,000 were Latino, and 16,000 were white.  Blacks make up about 25% of New York City’s population but were more than 50% of those stopped. More than 80% of those stopped were not charged with doing anything wrong.  Consider, for a moment, what this means.  Police officers make the decision to take a person, walking down the street minding his own business, seize him (in the legal sense of preventing him from continuing on his way unimpeded) and then place their hands on his body to determine whether he has anything that would lead them to arrest him.  This could include a weapon, or drugs, or stolen property.  But whatever causes the police officers to make the decision to seize and touch a citizen, they are wrong 88% of the time.  That’s an extraordinary number of innocent, law-abiding citizens who are being denied their right to walk down the street unmolested by the police.

For the 20% of cases that lead to a summons or arrest, consider this: I co-authored a report about the NYPD practice of  manufacturing arrests for  marijuana possession – in part to justify “stop and frisks” and in part to maintain their arrest numbers. In the course of a police ‘frisk’ or search, police officers may discover small amounts of marijuana in the person’s pockets or bag. The individual is then charged with having “marijuana in public view”, an arrestable misdemeanor offense under NYS Criminal Code Sec. 221.10. During the ten years from 1997-2007, the NYPD made more than 360,000 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession, more than any police dept in the country. More than 85% of those arrests were of Black and Latino young men under the age of 25 even though collectively, they comprise less than 40% of marijuana users. If that’s not racial profiling I don’t know what is.

What’s worse is that NYS decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977 in order to protect young people (then defined as middle-class white students) from the stigma of an arrest and criminal record for what was deemed an essentially harmless crime. Yet, here we are 30 years later, using a law designed to protect white youth to ensnare Black and Latino youth into the criminal justice system needlessly. These are the very same youth we say we want to help stay in school and enhance their employment potential yet we support police policies that ensure their marginalization and alienation from the mainstream……Why?

Many have said the Gates incident was relatively harmless in its consequences, but as Bob Herbert points out, being arrested handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed for a police mugshot is humiliating and has long term consequences. Like every other arrestee, Prof. Gates’ photos and fingerprints are now in the FBI criminal database along with all the millions of people whose arrest records are easily accessible for anyone who cares to search for it online. Unlike many arrestees he has a secure job, housing and relative security – for many a criminal arrest forever impacts their ability to get a job, apply for credit, housing, certain licenses and even to adopt a child.

No harm, no foul – I don’t think so.

Right now the media is focused on the issue of white rage and backlash to what is perceived as an increase in Black power and influence. Yet, the reality is Black unemployment is more than 20%, Black youth unemployment in NYC is more than 35% and rising. Very little of federal stimulus spending is being directed towards this vulnerable population. Pres. Obama’s election has given many Blacks, especially the young, hope the system can work for them despite considerable evidence to the contrary. The consequences of this generation watching their best hope being steadily emasculated politically and culturally (the rhetoric around Pres. Obama is growing more hateful daily) combined with continued economic displacement and neglect deserve serious consideration. Almost every major incident of urban unrest was sparked by an incident of police brutality or misconduct. We ignore the problem at our peril. The fire next time, may not be so easily put out – it may take a lot more than a few beers on the WH lawn………

About oshun55

Lawyer and public policy analyst focused on criminal justice, drug policy, racial justice, human rights, public health and gender equality
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