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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 27, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Larger Context of the Professor Gates Racial Profiling Incident

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the incident in which Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates alleges that he was racially profiled by the Cambridge Police Department after he tried to open the front door of his house that was stuck only to have a neighbor mistakenly think he was a burglar trying to break into the house and call the police, who subsequently arrested him after a confrontation at his house. The following CBS News video summarizes the incident:

For those who are regular readers of this site and blog, it will not surprise you to hear that I am squarely behind Professor Gates on this one for many reasons — being an academic as well, being a person of color, and being a sociologist who studies racial dynamics in this country.

As Professor Gates and his supporters argue, this entire incident is a stark example of the persistence of racial profiling in American society, where many Whites are quick to assume that any Black man in a well-to-do neighborhood is suspicious, where police are much less likely to believe a Black man’s word than a White man’s, and where police are much more likely to arrest a Black man while letting a White man go for the same behavior.

I don’t want to go into a long and detailed analysis about this particular incident nor the legal issue of racial profiling specifically. Some of the better commentaries that I’ve read about the Gates incident can be found at Racism Review, All About Race, and the New York Times.

For those who are interested in delving into the background issues that frame racial profiling (and the related topic of White privilege), I highly recommend starting with some of the books written by Professor Joe Feagin, such as White Racism: The Basics, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, and The Many Costs of Racism.

Certainly, this is not the first incident of racial profiling in American history. Neither is it the first incident in which an African American professor was arrested trying to do a seemingly routine and mundane task in public. I refer to a 2005 incident involving Antwi Akom, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University and personal friend of mine, who was stopped from entering his office and subsequently arrested by campus police while his two young daughters were sleeping in his car.

Sadly, these two incidents illustrate many unfortunate points about the state of race relations in American society today. The first is that even Blacks such as Professors Gates and Akom with high-status occupations or professional characteristics are not immune from racism and racial profiling. In fact, incidents like this remind me of a “joke” that an African American mentor told me years ago (please excuse the language, I’m just repeating it as it was told to me): “What does White America call a Black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.”

More generally, these kinds of incidents remind us that, contrary to what many and perhaps most Whites think, race is still a deeply-entrenched issue in American society, just waiting to boil over. As evidence, a second CBS News video summarizes how this incident has touched off a national debate about race relations and racial profiling:

What strikes me the most about not just this particular incident involving Professor Gates, but the reaction of Americans from different racial backgrounds around the country is this: I find it ironic that in general, many (as in a large number but certainly not all) Whites feel unaccustomed and therefore uncomfortable talking about racial issues (this recent article published by the American Psychological Association summarizes this tendency among Whites to avoid talking about race very well). Instead, consciously or unconsciously, they try to be “colorblind” and act like they don’t notice racial differences around them.

In theory, that’s a great idea but in practice and within the realities of American society, it is just not practical and ultimately, naive. The result of this dynamic is that when incidents like this (or when a group of Black and Latino children are turned away by a predominantly White swimming club, or when I notice that virtually all of the people who volunteered to stay and clean up after a Buddhist retreat are people of color) become publicized, many Whites are surprised and taken aback when the “R-word” (racism) is used.

In fact, many Whites become quite defensive when the R-word (or the idea of White privilege) comes up, as though they are being personally accused of acting in a racist way against a person of color, or that they are being told that they are personally more privileged than every single other person of color in the country.

But here’s the problem: what many Whites don’t realize is that one of the reasons why people of color invoke racism as the cause of such incidents is that on a collective and institutional level, we as a society have yet to honestly and fully reconcile our racial history and how it continues to form the basis for the conflicts such as this.

In other words, the fact that many Whites don’t want to or can’t talk about racism (as well-meaning and well-intentioned as they are) is part of the reason why racism still exists. In fact, this inability or unwillingness to discuss racism is a big reason why many Whites get defensive when the topic of racial discrimination or White privilege comes up — they are not able to depersonalize the issue, place it outside of their own personal experiences, and examine it from it from an institutional point of view.

Ultimately, this is also why relationships, opinions, experiences, and conversations between Whites and non-Whites on the individual and institutional levels remain emotionally fraught beneath the superficial veneer of colorblindness and in fact, will continue to boil over for the foreseeable future.

Yes, denial that race is a problem is part of the problem. And the more most Americans deny it, the more it festers and the more it erodes our sense of national identity and unity. The fact that this incident has become a national controversy should be plenty of proof that race is still a unresolved issue in this country. For those who think that I’m being “extremist,” or even “racist,” then take a look at the following NBC News video from this past weekend that basically says the exact same thing:


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Larger Context of the Professor Gates Racial Profiling Incident" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/07/larger-context-professor-gates-racial-profiling-incident/> ().

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