It has been nearly two weeks since the arrest of leading black scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a number of articles have been published interrogating police practice as it relates to minority communities, with particular focus on black men. Actors Boris Kodjoe and Jeffrey Wright both contributed commentary detailing their experiences navigating a prejudice white world and abusive law enforcement. President Obama himself made an off-script remark as well about the long embattled relationship between blacks, Latinos, and the police.
In the incident report submitted by Officer James Figueroa, he accuses Gates of screaming, “You don’t know who your [sic] messing with.” While Gates has called the report a fabrication, the implication of the comment is clear in most of the rhetoric swirling since his arrest. Gates is either too old, too educated, or too well-known to be arrested. Jelani Cobb, a contributing author to The Root, referred to the arrest as “unfathomable” and Jimi Izrael defined Gates as “mild-mannered” and thought it sad that a “prominent black scholar with reams of scholarship on bookshelves” couldn’t be distinguished from “Cousin Pookie.” To my surprise, not many people covering the “Gates Incident” have commented on more than his stature, his race, the place of the police, and their pride in Obama addressing an issue so common to the black male species. Profiling, or to be more specific racial-profiling, is not simply limited to the caustic relationship between black men and police officers.
While racial-profiling has unfortunately become synonymous with contentious relationships between black men and police officers, the term can and should be discussed more broadly. It should signify the many ways in which, “the summary or analysis of the history, status, etc., of a process of activity, relationship, or set of characteristics” is used to seek out individuals for harassment, unprovoked questioning, prosecution, etc.” contributes to the unfair treatment of all individuals, not simply the black male, not simply the “innocent.” Unfortunately, Dr. Gates’ arrest has garnered so much attention because he is an elite and because he was found “innocent” of the charge. Too frequently the catalyst for investigating profiling or pursuing any injustice is the discovery of or the presumption of innocence. There are countless stories of black men found innocent of rape after serving lengthy sentences, people saved from death row due to faulty testimony and planted evidence, but there is little focus on the ways in which racial-profiling and gender-profiling collide to affect women of color.
What is most clearly missing from this weeks-long debate are the ways in which race, gender, and class collide to create prison systems filled with minorities, in particular women. To his credit, Michael Eric Dyson’s CNN commentary provided a more nuanced look at race relations in the black community as a whole (class included), but he still manages to miss the gender argument. Even Melissa Harris-Lacewell who appeared on Rachel Maddow and who wrote commentary on the Nation missed the gender angle. Is it just not important, or has racial-profiling just become the “black male” problem? In this instance, it appears to be even less about all black men, and more about specific types–the well-educated types like Colin Powell, Dr. Gates, and President Obama. The pedagogues, the President’s friend, and the President himself. The “clean” men.
What I hope will eventually find its way into this discussion before it dies is the way women are profiled by police and a culture that condones unfair prosecution and rule-bending in pursuit of criminals. Despite statistics, black women are paraded as “welfare queens”, they are more likely to be prosecuted for petty offenses, and are less likely to see justice in the event they are victims of crimes. Too often, minority women are profiled. They are, as victims of abusive relationships more likely to end up being drug mules or runners, and therefore are more likely sought out by drug enforcement agents and a result now make up one of the largest growing populations in prison. “Black women are incarcerated at three times the rate for white women and Latina women at almost 1.6 times the rate for white women.” More than 80% of women incarcerated for drugs in New York are women of color. A coincidence? (Information provided by Women’s Prison Project at the Correctional Association in New York)
When Kimberle Crenshaw explored the idea of intersectionality she did so with an eye towards uncovering the ways in which various aspects of who we are impact the way we see the world, but more importantly, the way in which the world sees us. Unfortunately, our tendency to get bogged down in value politics, whereby some lives are more important and therefore less dispensible complicates our ability to interrogate the practices that shape our society. Our tendency to engage in debates about the death of a “good college kid” versus someone “with a police record” highlights the many opportunities we miss to challenge our systems “flexibility”, way before someone like Dr. Gates gets arrested on his porch, even if it is Cousin Pookie.