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Race, Crime and Justice: It Was Never Just About Henry Louis Gates

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The summer of 2009. It was that long ago when the arrest of an African American scholar at his home by a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had the country choosing sides and a president convening a beer summit at the White House to cool things down.

What most remember as a political spat that ensnared Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates, Sgt. James Crowley and President Barack Obama didn't start or end that summer. When Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree -- Gates' lawyer and friend -- visited Charlotte, N.C., recently, it wasn't just to sign copies of "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America," his book published last summer.

It was also to seek remedies for an issue so raw that it was barely touched on by the time a photo-op -- with the president, Vice President Joe Biden, Gates, Crowley and smiles all around -- took the story out of the headlines.

The point isn't that high-status black men have it tough in America -- though the book ends with a long list of PhDs, lawyers, and doctors who were pulled over and frisked, arrested or had a gun drawn on them because they "fit the description" or were thought out of place in a certain neighborhood, often their own.

Gates was arrested while Crowley was investigating a possible break-in at the professor's home. "It's a surprise to the world that a prominent Harvard University professor would be arrested in his own house," Ogletree told me. "But it says more about the broader issue that Gates is the one who has a lawyer -- me -- who has resources, who can get a positive result, and that's not the case for most people in America who are black or brown and poor.

"It reminds us that we can't focus on Gates as a success if ... women and men, black and brown, around the country can't find the same kind of justice." The answer is "to find a kind of system that's more just and more respectful of individuals."

It was the president's sentiment that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own house" that made headlines and launched debate on whether he should have said anything at all. Lost were his comments on racial profiling and a bill he worked on in the Illinois legislature.

"That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony," he said. "And yet, the fact of the matter is . . . this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause, and that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be."

In a program at the Charlotte School of Law, sponsored by the school, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, the Mecklenburg County Bar and the Community Building Initiative, Ogletree moderated a panel on the realities of race and justice in America and his belief that "in America today, race trumps class."

A police chief, district attorney, activists and lawyers who defend clients without the profile of a "Skip" Gates agreed with Obama and Ogletree that it's an essential conversation. This one took place in a city often touted as a New South model, the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which will place Charlotte in an international spotlight. It's a city with a majority white population and an African-American mayor and police chief, but one where disagreements about which schools and libraries should close to balance county budgets have raised issues of race, class and privilege.

Mayor Anthony Foxx listened as Chief Rodney Monroe said that effective policing puts emphasis should "on conduct, not one's race or certain acts that people attribute to race." Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray, elected in November, said he is reaching out to civic organizations so his office can better work with community members. "Race should never be a factor" when enforcing the law, he said.

As panelists pointed out, the U.S. prison population has grown from fewer than 500,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s to more than 2 million today, with much of the increase caused by the war on drugs. Minorities are disproportionately affected, though drug usage crosses all communities.

The country is "suffering from the over-criminalization of society and the racialization of crime," said longtime civil rights attorney James Ferguson. "When people think of crime, they think black, and increasingly Latino." Adriana Taylor of the Latin American Coalition said there are differences in the law and how it's enforced.

A police record can tag a person and follow him everywhere, preventing him from voting and getting a job or a bank loan, alienating him from society. Public defender Kevin Tully said he reminds his young minority clients of what's at stake when they insist on their right to wear a certain hairstyle or outfit to court. The people who will be judging them "watch a lot of TV," Tully tells them, where "this is what the bad guys look like." Lenny Springs, an education official with the Obama administration, said that "the television and motion-picture industry needs to take a look at themselves."

Three seniors from predominantly black West Charlotte High School -- including the class' top-ranked student who is headed to Wake Forest University -- sat in the audience as rebuke to the stereotype they said they have to face every day.

After the discussion, I had a chance to talk with Ogletree, whose seminar I took when I spent an academic year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. The police, he said, need help, too. "We put too much pressure on police to solve all of our problems," and "many of them have nothing to do with law enforcement."

"I think about the senior citizen in Roxbury [a black neighborhood in Boston] who sees some young black men with baggy pants pass outside her apartment building, and she knows they don't have drugs or guns, but she doesn't want to walk through them."

"She calls the police, they'll come, they'll make those young men get on the ground and they'll search them." They won't find anything and the men are upset because they didn't commit a crime, he said. "That's how we misuse the police sometimes." He said police departments don't have the training, or as much diversity, as they should have.

"Give them the resources to do prevention," Ogletree said, "get on the streets and get out of the car and make sure the community knows you're there not to just arrest but to really protect and to serve."

"That needs to be a transformative aspect of law enforcement," he said, and it's something he's optimistic will happen sometime in the 21st century. "I've been talking to police chiefs around the country, and they're saying we need to be smarter on crime and not just tougher."

"We can focus on the dangerous people in the community, and not just stop everybody that we think might be involved in crimes," Ogletree said. "It makes everybody safer."

But the community also has to be involved, not just by cooperating with police but by doing its part to keep neighborhoods clean and safe, he said. "Pick up that trash, don't double-park here, don't leave your child at home."

As Charlotte prepares for 2012, it is trying to become known as something more than just a place for a party. The city is tackling issues of equity, access and inclusion, even if, as Springs said, "Charles Ogletree of Harvard University has to come down to get this forum to talk about it."


Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.

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16 Comments

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John Vilvens

Dayton Ohio had test for the police department. Not enough minorities pasted. DOJ Holder made them re do the test. Dayton had and independent firm talk to police officers of all races and wrote a new test. They gave a new test with the same results. Now DOJ Holder want Dayton to lower the standard of who they will accept and fill quotas. Local naacp president disagreed now he says nothing after the national naacp agreed with HOLDER. This is racist when you are accepting a group for what they are not what they know or are qualified to do.

March 15 2011 at 7:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
robertsdvm

I will never understand the woman who wrote this article or any of her cohorts and they will never understand me. It's sad.

March 14 2011 at 7:35 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
garyharlow

As long as there are speakers and writers using racism as their soapbox there will be racism it's that simple, people like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson thrive on racism extorting millions from their own people to perpetuate their own importants and not caring about the cost. They want to hold up the great Dr. King as a martyr, and they're truly unfit to walk and his shadow. Dr. King wanted a equality across the land, todays black leaders want black domination, not equality , there will never be enough fairness to satisfy people like this.

March 14 2011 at 9:03 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hi Rob

Where is the mention of the black police officer that was present at the time of the arrest and backed the Sgt. 100% in his actions and the detaining of Prof. Ogletree? Why is race always assumed to be the motivating factor when a white police officer and a black (possible) offender are involved? Several years ago I watched a news interview of a South Florida Police officer who had shot nine black people in his 5-6 years as a Tactical officer. The interviewer asked how he could explain that all were black that he had shot and he responded, quite accurately, "...it's hard to shoot white people committing crimes in black neighborhoods." When an officer responds to a call and finds someone that may be breaking the law, the first thing the officer should do, regardless of the race of the encountered person, is to render that person harmless, then determine the situation.

March 14 2011 at 7:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
trb2244

My wife, two children, and I spent a long hour and a half on the Mall in Washington sitting in 90plus degree heat in an old, unairconditioned Jeep Wagoneer because I could not remember my Social Security number for a Park Police officer who had pulled me over for... a windshield someone had vandalized that I could not afford to have repaired. He was Black and in power, and we were not. Happens all the time. What's your point?

March 13 2011 at 3:24 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
crazycarlos

The police officer was just doing his job. Obama spoke before he knew all the facts. Professor Gates has an attitude problem and Bidin was there for the free beer. I think the whole charade was embarrassing and beneath a President.

March 13 2011 at 3:00 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
copterdude118

This journalist and so many others, many of whom are liberal, are guilty of the same biases they think they are fighting against. A very large percentage of police, especially along the southwest border, are Hispanic. A very large percentage of police in our highest crime areas are black. Yet Obama and other liberals try to make the case that in the southwest, local and state police are too racist to enforce immigration laws without violating civil rights and that police randomly harass and arrest black Americans for being black. To smear an entire profession as noble as those who protect and serve at the very real risk of their lives is just wrong.

March 13 2011 at 12:26 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
ettu

"But it says more about the broader issue that Gates is the one who has a lawyer -- me -- who has resources, who can get a positive result, and that's not the case for most people in America who are black or brown and poor."...............Do you really think it works any differently for the rest of us, Mary, who do not have the resources to fight back? Get real, please, time to drop the race issue.

March 13 2011 at 11:01 AM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
kenmcc2

Wow, the oversimplification of this article is breathtaking. It is just assumed that this was all a racially oriented incident and nothing about the police POV is even considered. The officer involved was very clear about police procedures underlying his actions. The fear was, this man who lived there could have been sent down by the two men who were reported as possibly having broken in, his family being threatened with mayhem if he did not send the police away. For this very rational reason he was asked to step outside, the stated reason being that out there he could more likely clarify exactkly what was going on.His objections to what was a routine police procedure contributed to what followed. Even if you don't fully buy this explanation, to boil this down to "prominent African Americans face racial prejudice every day" is just totally intellectually bankrupt. Shame on all who want to see the world in such simplistic terms.

March 13 2011 at 10:36 AM Report abuse +24 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

These things you will find when you take the SAT to get in college. People are not accepted by scores but by quotas. When you are inposition to hire people you have to hire by quota. If you want a government contract you have to hire so many minorities to get a contract. So many government contracts have to be given to minorities not depending on price or experience. I have worked with many minorities that were great workers and deserved everything they got, but I have seen people promoted for what they are not what they know or do. Equality means you work or study hard you should get the benifits of your hard work no matter what race or sex you are.

March 13 2011 at 9:10 AM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John Vilvens's comment
stevef123811

SAT scores? LMAO! It was published a couple of months ago that 23.8% of hig school gradutes CANOT pass the test to join the Army. You know, tough questions like can you tie shoelaces or do you use velcro fasteners.

March 13 2011 at 2:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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