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Recent Racism and Law Enforcement

2009-07-26

Category: politics

A recent clash with law enforcement brought up a subject that really annoys me. I don't care how much you think your are right or how much you are in a bad mood, when the police come along to investigate you must be cooperative and non-threatening. This incident that brought about this thought may have extenuating circumstances, but it still brings cooperation out as the first point.

Earlier this month, Sgt James Crowley arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The generally agreed upon facts are that the professor and an associate legally forced their way into the professor's own home, presumably due to a broken lock. A neighbor called police and Sgt. Crowley arrived to investigate and eventually arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

The stories split there. Crowley's side says that Gates was generally uncooperative. Gates claims that Crowley overreacted to the situation because Gates is black. Because the issue involves racism, many people automatically chose a side without gathering all the facts. President Obama even made a statement on national television about the issue. (Whether that was a good idea is a separate issue.)

As part of the follow up discussion, much talk centers on how black men are afraid of police and that this alters their reactions to police interaction. This is a good discussion to have. Based on history, there is good reason for blacks to distrust and even fear law enforcement. In some parts of the country this is still a bigger problem.

There are five things I hope will be kept in mind while during this discussion. First, you cannot let it revert back to the "Angry Black Man" argument. Logical fallacies fill that argument and it eventually dissolves into the statement that black men should be assumed guilty from the start. It is not a good argument.

Secondly, great progress in race relations flows through the past few decades. Make it clear that the vast majority of law enforcement personnel are not bigots but instead are people dedicated to keeping their communities safe and lawful. Though there are exceptions to this, and some places are worse than others, we cannot assume that police officers are automatically guilty any more than we can assume that black men are automatically guilty.

Third, during the Civil Rights Movement, there were many protests, and many conflicts with law enforcement. The ones that did the most good were the peaceful ones. Sit-ins, marches, rallies, and appeals to the decency of man are the things that changed the laws and put this country on the path to equality. Calling an investigating officer a racist just because he is an officer investigating is not really helping things.

Fourth, some commented that the professor could prove that the home was his and such proof should have been enough to end the matter. Well, not really, if you consider several recent incidents around the country. Several times recently separated or divorced men went back to their former place of residence and then terrorized the ex-wife. These individuals are likely to have had ID that showing they lived in those places, even if court rulings said otherwise. The investigation is done when the officer has checked on everyone's safety.

Fifth, and finally, I know a goodly number of professors and they come in all types. I don't know where Professor Gates falls in this spectrum, but it is something to be considered. Some professors are brilliant at what they do and are generally intelligent in other areas, but know that they are not experts outside their area. The other extreme are the professors who believe that because they have a doctorate in finger painting they must be smarter than everybody else about everything else. The ones who know their limits are great to work with. The others are the source of the phrase "educated idiot". Many professors fall somewhere in between. Again, I don't know enough about Gates, but before attributing credit associated with being a professorů

Some tell me I can't possibly understand the plight of the black man because I'm white. Please ignore that I've been attacked because of my skin color and attacked for speaking out against racial violence; weird stuff fills my history. Only a year and a half ago, a fellow suggested that my refusal to let him bum a ride off of me was due to racism. It was inconceivable to him that I had already given him too many rides to be nice and would rather go about my business than to help him be more of a bum. (I did offer him Marine recruitment brochures to suggest a way that he could get transport, food, and shelter so he could stop trying to beg such things, but he seemed disinterested.)

Despite all those things, it is true that I cannot fully understand the experience faced by black Americans. That doesn't mean I can't offer the following advice. When the officer comes to the door to investigate, be polite and cooperative and, probably most importantly, keep your hands where they can be easily seen and don't reach for things. Most officers today, in most parts of the country, just want everything to be peaceful and lawful. They're just doing their job.


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