Speaking about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that unlike White presidents who could dance around racial issues, Obama had to be direct. “That is the whole difference. Bush could punt. Obama can’t punt. This issue resonates with him.”
Like Obama, Gates was also unable to punt. You can’t punt when you are the ball and are in the process of being kicked around. Sgt. James Crowley said after the fact that he was even more surprised with Gates’ behavior “seeing how educated he was.” But that’s the point: His behavior is a result of his education.
Gates knows the score. He knows that when the door to a home in an upscale neighborhood opens up and a Black man is standing in that door, the police behave differently than if a small, White, 58-year-old man using a cane answers the door. If they treated him differently than a White man answering the door, which I believe they did, he has a right to be upset and outraged.
Of all the 911 calls of a possible home invasion in upscale neighborhoods where a White male, regardless of his age, answered the door, how many were then told without any explanation to step outside and provide I.D.? How many times did they handle that situation the way they handled Gates? I’d bet not once.
Once the door opens up, the whole situation changes. If it is a White man, the police relax. If it is a Black man, they tighten up. That is what happened to Gates — they tightened up!
If you think this is not happening, you’re living with your head in the sand. It is so easy for a White man like myself to answer the door when the police are knocking. Experience over the years has shown me that I will be treated with respect. Our past experiences affect, even dictate our behavior in the present.
Gates answers his door not just burdened with our ugly past racial history, but also with the ugly history we are still making, the profiling that still exists on the other side of this door in his front yard.
If I am Crowley, I’m handling it the very same way. When that door opens up and it is a Black man, I handle it differently than if it were a White man. I tighten up.
We waste so much time and energy trying to prove we were not being racist. Profiling is alive and well within many of us. It can be a quick reaction sort of thing that many of us do on a daily basis. We just don’t get caught and put on the front page like Crowley.
It is best to just be honest. I believe honesty is all we have left to save and heal us.
Many letter writers on our local editorial pages have slammed Gates based on their own experiences of being “inconvenienced” by the police because of mistaken identity or the police showing up at the wrong address; they kept their cool and remained calm and polite in the process.
But profiling is not the same as these once-in-a-lifetime experiences some people have with police. Should Gates and other men of color be expected to remain calm and polite for their entire lives as they continue to be profiled?
The police showing up at the wrong house is not deliberate. Profiling is.
Frank Erickson lives in Minneapolis.
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