Professor Gates and the Criminalization of Black Men in America
Do we live in a "post-racial" America?
Posted Jul 28, 2009
The recent arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us of Alexis de Tocqueville's prediction nearly two centuries ago that the eventual end of slavery would be the start of a protracted and bloody struggle in America driven by the engine of racial inequality. During the Jim Crow era, the statutory category of "vagrancy" served much the same function as "disorderly conduct" appears to serve now. And, like vagrancy in its vagueness and discretionary margin for law enforcement, the case of Professor Gates allows police officers to determine when his behavior has become sufficiently "loud and tumultuous" to warrant arrest in his own home.
In what some claim as "post-racial" America, individual instances of African Americans' experience with the criminal justice system do not convince people, particularly whites, that these incidents add up to much. In "post-racial" America, where we are encouraged to believe that there is virtue in ignoring race, it is African Americans, not whites who seem to want to inject race into every event involving people of color. Any notice of the dimension of race is subject to accusations of "playing the race card."
If racism is understood only in terms of slavery and lynchings, then we might live in a post-racial era. But this is not an accurate view of how racism and discrimination work. Racist violence still takes place, but today discrimination more often occurs in seemingly little ways, in treatment that, if viewed as isolated events seem to not amount to much. But for African Americans, the hundreds of indignities that have been described as death by a thousand nicks, accumulate as a lifetime of regular and repeated confrontation with racism. And while most African Americans, and likely every single African American man, have had negative experiences with the criminal justice system, these instances do not seem to count for much in the collective white American mind. Psychological research lends support for these individual experiences of African Americans.
A common stereotype about African Americans, particularly African American men, is that they are angry, hostile, and aggressive. Research on facial perception suggests that white Americans over interpret anger in black men. One study found that white Americans interpreted anger in the faces of African American men whose faces were actually neutral. This did not happen when white men or African American women's faces were viewed. How do these biases in the interpretation of black men come about? Most white Americans have relatively little actual contact with African Americans. We live in segregated communities and workplaces. One place whites do see African Americans is on television. What does television teach people about African Americans?
In television news, the so-called objective medium, African American men are overrepresented as criminal suspects and underrepresented as victims of crime in comparison to actual crime statistics. The opposite is true for whites: they are underrepresented as perpetrators and overrepresented as victims. African American suspects are also more likely to be portrayed in the media as threatening and menacing (e.g., handcuffed, physically restrained by police officers) than white suspects. When white readers are exposed to newspaper stories about a violent crime, they are more likely to attribute the suspect's behavior to his disposition (e.g, violent personality), than to situational factors (e.g., suspect recently lost his job) if the suspect is black rather than white. These data suggest that there is a perceived stability and permanence to black crime-"that's just how those people are"-whereas white crime is assumed to be more transient, isolated, and situational. For someone who sees two black men entering a house in a good neighborhood, it takes little mental effort to imagine those men are breaking in. For someone who sees two white men, it will take more mental effort, and requires disrupting perception, to assume they are burglars and not legitimate residents.
Stereotypes and racial profiling can have deadly results, such as the numerous police shootings of unarmed and innocent black men. Undercover officer Omar Edwards was shot by another officer in Harlem last May. Police officers make split decisions during life-threatening moments whether to shoot or not shoot. We cannot speculate about any individual officer's motivations but simulation studies give us a glimpse into the patterns of the quick decisions people make based on race. In video simulation studies people fire at an armed target more quickly if he is African American than if he is white, and they decide not to shoot an unarmed white target more quickly than an unarmed African American target. If a target is black, respondents require less certainty that he is holding a gun before they decide to shoot. Surely respondents could perform perfectly on the task by focusing on the object in the target's hand, ignoring race. But people are overwhelmed by the cognitive link between violence and black men. Thus, race (or, ideas about race) interferes with the ability of respondents to be accurate. In these studies African Americans are just as likely as whites to "overshoot" the black unarmed suspect. This fact should not be surprising because both African Americans and whites are, for the most part, subjected to the same messages linking black men and crime.
Harassment by law enforcement is a regular occurrence for many African American men. It is not a regular occurrence for most white men. Black men in our country are routinely stopped, required to provide documentation as to their identity and their residence. Recently, Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal reminded us of a time not long past during which black men lived in peril if they moved about in public without papers. It is hard not to understand the demand for proof of residence made of Professor Gates in his own house as part of a long tradition of presuming that any black man anywhere at any time is likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Black men are routinely questioned, detained, arrested, and charged. They are sometimes beaten, sometimes killed, not because their guilt has been demonstrated but because they must be guilty of something. Innocent white men can move through the world with confidence that they will remain unmolested by police attention. Sgt. Crowley's police report names "disorderly conduct" as the charge, and his narrative describes Professor Gates's raised voice as sufficient cause for arrest.
In the opinion pieces, blogs, and hours of air time now devoted to this case, audiences have been assured that Professor Gates is as much to blame as Sgt. Crowley for the outcome of his own arrest. We must ask, would a white man, similarly situated, in his own home, be expected to not raise his voice? I do not envy law enforcement officers who have to make split-second life-and-death decisions. But by pretending or hoping that ideas about race do not affect how we view people and interpret their actions, we have no real hope of achieving true racial equality.