BENEATH THE SPIN • ERIC L. WATTREE
How to Protect Yourself When You Suspect Racial Profiling
Well, racial profiling is in the news again.
Prominent Black scholar and Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was recently arrested after a forced entry into his own home. Dr. Gates alleges that he was arrested for spite after he'd presented his identification, then repeatedly insisted that the officer provide his name and badge number.
Racial profiling cannot be defended. It is a horrible affront to the constitution, the rule of law, and to every law-abiding citizen, but I'm not addressing that issue here. The one issue that is at least as important as racial profiling itself, is how to best protect yourself if you suspect you're the victim of racial profiling. After all, that could become a matter of life and death.
Many of the tragedies that stem from racial profiling, regardless to whether the profiling is the result of blatant racism, or simply gross ignorance, is greatly assisted by the blind outrage of the victim. So if you suspect that you're the victim of racial profiling, it is imperative that you keep a cool head. It could save your life.
When racial profiling is due to pure racism, there's very little that you can do other than make sure you don't allow it to escalate. A good rule of thumb is, whatever the situation, never give your enemy what he wants, and in the case of racial profiling, what the enemy wants most is for you to become enraged. That gives him carte blanche to carry out his agenda.
But in some cases racial profiling is a result of ignorance. It's not that the officer is a blatant racist, but he's acting on his stereotyped image of Black men - and in those cases he's often scared to death. If that's the case, you also need to control your rage, because you'll not only protect your well being, but it gives you the opportunity to take advantage of an educational moment, where you can demonstrate to this man that his stereotyped image of Black men may be less than valid.
It's all about thinking instead of giving in to knee-jerk emotionalism, because it is that very unthinking emotionalism that leads to racial profiling in the first place, regardless to whether it's motivated by racism or ignorance.
While it was well within Dr. Gates' right to respond to his situation with outrage, I would have handled it differently. Dr. Gates indicated the following in an interview with The Root:
The officer asked, "'Would you step outside onto the porch.' And the way he said it, I knew he wasn't canvassing for the police benevolent association. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, 'No, I will not.'"
Although Dr. Gates was clearly within his rights, what's within your rights is not always the smartest thing to do - the graveyard is filled with people who were right.
By responding as he did, he not only injected a confrontational tone into an already tense situation, but he also challenged the authority of a man whose authority as a police officer might have been the most meaningful thing in his life. In addition, by repeatedly demanding the officer's name and badge number, he backed the man into a corner. He could have gotten that information later from the police report.
But again, Dr. Gates had every right to do everything that he did, but as I mentioned above, what is within one's rights is not always the smartest thing to do. What Dr. Gates didn't do was think. If the officer was indeed a racist, it might have felt good to imply that I'm a world renowned Black scholar and you're nobody, so I'm about to crush you like a grape, but it was a very dangerous thing to do.
On the other hand, if this was just a cop trying to do his job but had a misguided and stereotyped attitude towards Black men, Dr. Gates missed a prime opportunity to change that attitude. Instead, he became a catalyst to pushed the officer from simply misguided, to true racist - in which case, the next Black man that the officer runs across, who don't have the clout of Dr. Gates, may have to pay dearly.
Had I been in Dr. Gates' position - and I have - when the officer asked me to step out on the porch, I would have said, "Absolutely." And as I was coming out the door I would have said the following:
"Officer, I'm Dr, Henry Gates, and I'm a professor at the university. I just returned from China to find my front door jammed, so I had to force entry. I know this looks suspicious, and I'm sorry you had to come out, but it does give me an opportunity to personally thank you for being so conscientious in protecting my property while I was away. I have several more pieces of identification showing this address if you need them."
That way, if the officer had a racist agenda he wouldn't have anything to act on. But if the officer was simply misguided and acting on a stereotypical image of Black men, Dr. Gates' gracious behavior would have challenged that image, and given the officer something to think about in his interactions with Black men in the future.
While we should continue to vigorously address racial profiling, we can't defeat it through the courts alone. We've got to address the root of the problem, and that root is deeply embedded in the mind of man.
We've got to address the problem of racial profiling on several fronts. Turn on your television and look at how we allow Black men to be portrayed in the media. Corporations pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for 30 second commercials to influence our minds. Now consider that there are entire networks beaming videos around the world, and around the clock, declaring that the Black man is a gangsta and Black women are whores. So is it the world's fault that they believe us?
The fact is, the Black community is not only promoting, but financing racial profiling. So who should we really be mad at?
Eric L. Wattree
Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.