By Peter Prime
On July 23, 2009, President Obama was asked to make a comment on the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates during a press conference. The African American professor had been arrested in his own home, even though he showed the police that he was the owner of the house.
In answering the question, the president discussed the issue of profiling, which disproportionately affects minorities. The president said that if he were trying to “jigger” his way into the White House, he would have gotten shot. This statement by the president of the United States is a vivid reminder of the paradox of being a person of color, especially African American, in the post civil rights era. The movement has allowed many blacks to make substantial achievements, but the country’s racial legacy, particularly expressed in the form of profiling, continues to cast a big shadow into the present.
For most of the country’s history, blacks lived at the periphery of American society. The laws of the country played an essential role in fostering this marginalization. Discriminatory practices, no matter their viciousness, did not take place in a vacuum. The perpetrators of those pernicious acts had the laws on their side.
The civil rights movement succeeded in upending the racial caste system by forcing changes in the law. Without the explicit backing of the law, de jure discrimination became untenable and soon ceased. Since they were no longer under the yoke of those oppressive laws, blacks became unshackled and began to pursue the American dream.
A number of African Americans started to take advantage of the many opportunities that were heretofore unavailable to them; the legacy of the country’s racial past, however, has continued to hover into the present. Nowhere has this shadow loomed larger than in the criminal justice system.
Two major developments in the post civil rights era have made it more likely for African Americans to be the victims of profiling. In 1980, there were 143,000 African Americans who had been incarcerated. Today, this number has increased almost ten-fold. Today, it is more than 2 million. This sharp rise in the incarceration rate is due to non-violent drug offenses even though drug use in the African American community is comparable to that of the white community.
This increase in the incarceration rate along with the longstanding association of blackness with criminality has made black males highly suspicious in the eyes of many in the law enforcement community. This suspicion, therefore, tends to make African Americans regardless of social status the focus of racial profiling.
Desegregation is one of the greatest successes of the civil rights movement. However, while it has allowed upwardly mobile African Americans to reside in neighborhoods that were the exclusive preserve of the majority, desegregation increased the likelihood that many black families would be the victim of profiling by virtue of the zip code of the areas that they reside.
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin is emblematic of those two developments that have been looming so large in the lives of African Americans regardless of their class in the post civil era. Zimmerman became suspicious of Trayvon not because he was doing anything wrong, but his very person was enough of a justification for his suspicion. More importantly, the shooter followed him because he felt that Trayvon did not belong in the neighborhood.
Therein lies the paradox. After centuries of being relegated to the margins of American society, desegregation helped blacks make considerable gains. But desegregation has bred resentment; though it subsided it never completely melted away. When segregation was in place, the lines of demarcation that separated African Americans from white-only areas were clear. Since these restrictions had been enforced for centuries, the you-do-not-belong ethos has survived in many places, most notably in neighborhoods that many black families integrated.
Police officers do not come from an island that has been shielded from the country’s racial history. Hence, many police officers probably hold stereotypical views about black males. It is probable that some of these officerscling to the belief that blacks are more likely to commit crimes. Moreover, many grew up in neighborhoods that underwent desegregation.
Thus, it should not be surprising that when they enter the police force, they carry with them the attitude that blacks do not belong in certain neighborhoods. This inclination coupled with the authority that is granted to law enforcement could easily lead to abuse of power.
African Americans have become an integral part of American society and have never enjoyed as much freedom in America than at any time in history. In fact, Eric Holder, who is African-American, is the chief law enforcement officer in the country. Yet, the blue uniform continues to illicit an intense feeling of dread on the part of many black males.
The Trayvon Martin case has resonated powerfully in the black communities because African Americans could identify with not only Trayvon, but with the grieving parents. More importantly, the shooting death has triggered a chorus of he-could-have-been within the black community. For black parents, Trayvon could have been their son. For black females, he could have been their brother. For most black males, there is that feeling that he could have been me.
Although the case has generated a great deal of attention, it is unlikely that it carries the same level of resonance in other communities. Racial profiling is a sensitive and emotional issue for African Americans because every segment of the community has experienced it. Since other groups have not been subjected to it to the same extent as African Americans, they are likely to see profiling as an abstract issue or discuss it in a detached manner. Most people would press to change a law or certain practices when they are subjected to them. The most altruistic or empathetic among us could still manage to put themselves in the shoes of others. But they would probably still struggle to feel the weight of those shoes.
The statement of the president indicates that even the occupancy of the highest office in the land might not offer full immunity from the scourge of racial profiling. Its specter continues to hunt African Americans because it is an angst-producing and humiliating experience. Worse of all, it could be deadly as was the case for Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant. This practice would not go away anytime soon because its impact falls largely on the back of minorities. But the Civil Rights Movement had shown what could happen when people came together to press for change.
For this effort to succeed however, it would require a change in drug sentencing in order to cut down on the number of minorities who get incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. The task will no doubt be daunting because there would be a need to transform the conscience of the nation. It would not be, however, the first time that minorities especially African American along with other Americans of goodwill had succeeded in making such transformation.
Peter Prime is a writer/blogger from Philadelphia, PA.