Last February, I wrote a column about my experience with racial profiling after I was stopped by two police officers while walking a mere mile away from my apartment on the South Side near the plush Beverly area.
I showed the officers my I.D. verifying that this was indeed my neighborhood and that I wasn’t on probation. They still wanted to know what I was doing in this mostly white section of the community. I was told by one of them, “Those cul-de-sacs are there for a reason,” referring to the point separating North Beverly – where I was stopped – and South Beverly, where I lived.
I also wrote it to repudiate any theories that we have reached some “post-racial America.” I warned that incidents like racial profiling is still disproportionately affecting black and Latinos. This past July, I saw the ugly wounds of racism return again to public discourse.
I recently wrote about Latina Judge Sonia Sotomayor, our likely next Supreme Court Justice, and the first Hispanic ever on the court. Despite her 17-year record on the bench, she was still slandered by critics and called a racist, and was mocked as an “affirmative action appointee.” Then, there is the rise of the “Birther Movement.” It’s a fringe movement on the political Right that insists Barack Obama was not born in American and therefore is not really the president. It’s a ridiculous claim with no foundation of truth.
It’s been discredited by some Washington D.C. news organizations. Obama put his birth certificate online. The notice of his birthday on Aug. 4, 1961 was published in a Hawaiian newspaper. But the “birthers,” as they’re called, still insist that he’s a foreigner.
Then there’s the incident with black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested from his home after a neighbor called police to report am intruder inside. While returning home from a late night trip July 16, Gates forced open a jammed door to get in. The professor got into it with arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who took Gates in for disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped. But the media jumped on the story and much public reaction was spilt along racial lines.
Some whites criticized Gates for basically mouthing off to the cop and not cooperating. African-Americans, some themselves the victims of racial profiling, argued that the officer should have just left the house once he discovered Gates lived there. Though the president brought the two men together at the White House to discuss the incident, the case still bothers me.
I doubt that the officer felt physically threatened by the short, grey-haired, 58-year-old Gates. And police can’t simply arrest someone for simply being a jerk, and I’m not suggesting Prof. Gates falls into that category. It seems the real reason for arresting Gates was his audacity to question the officer’s authority, doing so while standing in his own home. The arrest was an abuse of power.
But there’s a larger message in Gates’ arrest and the other racially-tinged moments from last month.
America is a nation that promises its people certain inalienable rights, including pursuing the American dream. We as Americans are taught that through education, hard work and dedication, nothing is beyond our reach, regardless of race or gender. But for people of color, we still have to “prove” ourselves.
Although I am a college-educated, African-American man with no prior criminal history, while walking to a bookstore in my own neighborhood, I must prove that I am not a criminal. And I’m even advised not to be in that neighborhood again for fear of being mistaken for crook.
Sotomayor worked tirelessly to put herself through law school, but for some, she must prove that’s she’s as good as her white male counterparts. Obama has never shown signs of racial bias while president, yet he still must prove that he is not giving preference to minorities, and, that he is a “real American.” Gates is a highly-decorated educator and author. Still, he must prove that he belongs in his own house without complaining too much to police, or else he’ll be taken to jail.
When will we become a nation where people of color who succeed in this society have nothing left to prove?