I read in an online article a few days ago that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was ready to “move on” from his arrest by white police officer James Crowley in hopes that he can use the encounter to improve fairness in the criminal justice system. He was quoted as saying “in the end, this is not about me at all.” The problem is, it is all about him (and President Obama to some extent). Or at least that’s how the media has continually framed this issue.
This romanticized idea of racial profiling amazes me for several reasons. One, most people who are racially profiled don’t receive back-to-back CNN special reports and they don’t have opinion polls devoted to their experiences and whether what happened to them was just or unjust. Most people who are profiled by law enforcement go nameless to the general public, their rights stripped from them without any due process of the law, or of the media.
So how do we keep profiling from becoming the next media trend? Don’t make it one. Acknowledge that this happens every day to many people, and that their trials are just as important, if not more, than that of Skip Gates. What makes his case particularly interesting is that he is a Harvard Professor, public intellectual, and he was in his own home (as are many people who are profiled while driving into their garages, down their street, or walking to the store). His story echoes the same patterns that outline Oakland, Chicago, and Brooklyn city streets every single day: people are stopped, pulled over, accosted, detained, harassed, and mistreated because of physical identifiers: race, baggy pants, age, class, and presumed gender. So, instead of using this time to harp on the peculiarity of Skip Gates’ arrest, let us harp on the fact that so many others just like him undergo this type of treatment everyday and no one cares. Their stories escape the news stations and hang with them forever. The mental trauma of one’s life being repeatedly disrupted and their existence questioned is something that goes unnoticed here. While I am sure Skip Gates underwent some sort of personal trauma due to the incident, I also know that he is Skip Gates- wealthy and well known- and is capable, as in this case, of “moving on” from the incident due partly to his stature in society. Some are unable to “move on” or to potentially have a beer with their captors.
Oscar Grant was unable to “move on” because he lost his life due to a policeman’s racially motivated actions. Amadou Diallo was not able to “move on” in a CNN media blitz because he also lost his life when 19 bullets pierced his body. Women, specifically women of color, are frequent victims of profiling but where are their stories? Can they move on? It is important to scrutinize how the mainstream media is able to take certain issues and re-engineer them for a Hollywood, sensationalized effect. So the story of the wronged Black Harvard professor who now agrees to have beers in the white house with the man who profiled him becomes the headline, instead of an honest, true dialogue on the unglamorous nature of profiling in this country and how many people are affected and ultimately silenced by it.
I am sure that Skip Gates and President Obama have sincere intentions to make this a “teachable moment,” and to address the underlying issues of racism and unfairness at play in profiling. Unfortunately, many mainstream media outlets do not share this same outlook. So let us not corroborate with them in distorting the brutal truths of racial profiling and singling out this one incident from the many that plague us every day.