Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can Prejudice be Justified?

By Etan Thomas

By now everyone has heard of the incident that occurred with Professor
Henry Louis Gates and officer James Crowley of the Cambridge Police
department. Just to recap, a woman calls the police to inform them
that two black men are breaking into a house. The police end up
arresting a Harvard professor at his own house for disorderly conduct.
At his own house. President Barack Obama calls the actions taken by
the Cambridge police "stupid," the officers apparently get offended
and return with criticism that the President commented without knowing
all of the facts. As if there was a missing piece of evidence that
supported arresting a man for breaking into his own house and citing
the reason for the arrest as disorderly conduct.

President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement
Executives Joseph McMillan stated:

Once Gates was identified as the lawful resident of the house, the
police contact should have ended.
Sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Officer
Crowley, in describing the chain of events, explains that Professor
Gates was arrested after he proved to him that it was indeed his
house, showed the proper identification, and began to become in
Crowley's words "disorderly." I guess he expected bygones to be
bygones, and to receive an invite for some donuts and maybe a good
laugh at the absurdity of being detained or even questioned for
breaking into one's own house. Or maybe Crowley expected Gates to say
something along the lines of, "Oh, that's O.K. Mr. Police Officer, I
know you were just doing your job and the fact that you treated me
like a common criminal despite the fact that I am a Harvard Professor
with numerous honorary degrees, widely considered one of the nation's
foremost authority on black culture, didn't even bother me. Thank you
for keeping our streets safe."

To add insult to injury, Crowley has proclaimed that he will not
apologize because he feels he did nothing wrong. This father of three
(not sure why articles keep pointing that out so I decided to
reiterate) and police academy instructor on the dangers of racial
profiling, who the Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas describes
as "a stellar member of the department," who Academy director Thomas
Fleming calls "a good role model," described by his colleagues as an
overall wonderful human being, told the Herald, "I just have nothing
to apologize for, it will never happen."

My four-year-old son Malcolm knows that saying you're sorry for
something you have done to offend another person is what you are
supposed to do. He knows that even if it was an accident and you had
no intention of disrespecting or affronting the person, the correct
thing to do is to offer a sincere apology. Oh, if we could all have
the mentality of a four year old.

But to make matters worse, Crowley brings up the fact that he tried to
save basketball star Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,
as if that proves that he couldn't possibly be a racist. What is he
going to say next, that he enjoyed watching every season of The Cosby
Show? Michael Jackson was one of his favorite entertainers? He has
black friends?

President Obama has invited them both to the White House to sit down
and iron out whatever happened. I'm sure they will shake hands, maybe
even apologize to each other for their parts in the incident and take
a picture together or something. However, there is a bigger issue that
this incident has sparked.

An article on called "Obama's Rush to Judgment on
Police" by Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay
College, offered a very interesting perspective. In the article she

Police work is about sub-cultural contexts, war stories, about
suspicion, about unpredictability, about danger and fear of one's
life. Police make their decisions based on not just a given situation
but also based on their prior experience, the experience of those they
have worked with and the stories they have heard about incidents that
happened in the past... Police officers hear about these stories and
unlike the members of the public who forget a story no matter how
sensational within a day or two, police carry these stories as their
secret weapons. This is part of their armor. An officer responding to
a burglary in progress arrives at the scene with a heightened sense of
danger, anxious and ready to fighting mode.
Sounds a lot like she is justifying prejudice. So would I be well
within my rights to utilize the same method of thinking that was
described by Professor Haberfeld? Would I be justified in thinking
that every police officer I see is a racist pig? I mean, I have "prior
experiences and the experience of those I have worked with and the
stories they have heard about incidents that happened in the past."
Personal experiences such as being stopped and dragged out of my car
while I was in high school by members of the Tulsa Police Department
and made to lay on the ground while on my way to one of the biggest
games of the season because the officers thought they saw my face in a
lineup or on a mug shot. It turned out they had just seen me in the
papers playing basketball, but I definitely didn't receive an apology.
Or while I was in college being put in handcuffs by the Syracuse
Police Department, in the snow mind you, my freshman year along with
one of my teammates because they thought we had stolen the car we were
in. They actually had the audacity to tell us to stay out of trouble
afterward, but no apology. Or after I was drafted by the Dallas
Mavericks, being stopped by the Dallas Police Department and told that
my Navigator would be impounded if I could not provide proof of a job
that would allow me to purchase a car of that magnitude. Again I
received no apology. Or driving through Virginia on my way to one of
my teammate's house and being stopped by the Virginia Police
Department and asked what business I had in that neighborhood,
detained for hours and later told that I "fit the description" of
something that happened. Still no apology.

As far as "war stories, unpredictability, danger and fear of one's
life," just in the past 5 years there has been an abundance of horror
stories of police brutality. Events that seemingly are forgotten about
by the general public within a day or two that I could carry around as
"secret weapons." Accounts such as the NYPD shooting Sean Bell fifty
times on the morning of his wedding day on November 25th of 2006; the
image of half a dozen Philadelphia police officers beating, kicking
and punching three men while holding them on the ground on May 7,
2008; Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle executing 22 year old
Oscar Grant while he was handcuffed and lying face down on the
pavement in January of 2009. Unfortunately I could go on and on with
example after example.

I'm not alone in having personal accounts of "war stories" that could
shift the entire way I look at all law enforcement. President Barack
Obama wrote in his book The Audacity Of Hope:

Although, largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a
position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the
average black man must endure -- I can recite the usual litany of
petty slights that during my 45 years have been directed my way:
security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white
couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant
waiting for valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason.
I know what it's like to have people tell me I can't do something
because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back
So my question is, would I or any other black man who shares "war
stories" involving the police be justified, utilizing Professor
Haberfeld's method, in immediately going into "a heightened sense of
danger, anxious and ready to go into fighting mode" type of a
mentality every time I see a policeman? Would I be justified in
prejudging them before knowing anything about them? Do the isolated
incidents in my past and what I have seen justify an overall prejudice
toward all policemen? The answer of course is no.

My Grandfather told me a long time ago that he couldn't put all white
people in the category of devils because he had to judge each person
as an individual. Now, if they prove themselves to be devils, then
that is a different story, but they have to prove that first. He had a
long list of previous experiences that I couldn't even imagine living
through or being able to deal with, but he always concluded that there
are good white people and there are bad white people, just as there
are good black people and bad black people. This is my point: no
matter what our past experiences are, it is not intelligent, nor is it
fair not to see people as individuals. Furthermore, if a policeman is
to prejudge a situation and not have the ability to view it on a case-
by-case basis, he has no business being a policeman.

If not responsibly honed, their power can become catastrophic,
dangerous, destructive and corrupt.

Sent from my iPhone

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