Suspicions Of Police Bias Haunt Black Men

July 26, 2009|By Richard Fausset and P.J. Huffstutter | Richard Fausset and P.J. Huffstutter,Tribune Newspapers

Like Henry Louis Gates Jr., they are professionals, men of status and achievement who have excelled in a nation that once shunned black men.

And for many of them, their only shock - upon learning of Gates' run-in with police - was the moment of recognition.

They know too well the pivotal moment Gates faced at his Massachusetts home. It was that moment of suspicion when confronted by police, the moment one wonders, in a flash of panic, anger or confusion: Maybe I am being treated this way because I'm black. Next comes the pivotal question: Do I protest or just take it?

Kwame Dunston says he has made the calculated choice to take it - repeatedly. The New York public school administrator says he has been pulled over more than 20 times in the past decade, but has rarely been issued a ticket.

"It's more important for me to make it home than to fight for a cause I'm not going to win," he said.

"My job," said Dunston, 36, "is to make sure they don't have any question about what's inside the car."

Such anxiety, deeply rooted in the African-American experience, has endured into the era of the first black president. For many black men, the feeling of remaining inherently suspect never goes away, no matter their wealth and status and the efforts by police forces to avoid abuses in profiling.

Lawrence Otis Graham, author of a book on affluent African-Americans, said wealthy blacks may, in fact, be subjected to more racial profiling than others.

In upscale white neighborhoods, they sometimes stand out. In fancy restaurants, they're sometimes mistaken for help.

Those issues came crashing back into the spotlight with the arrest of Gates, a Harvard University professor, on July 16.

Cambridge police showed up at Gates' home, responding to a call on a possible break-in. Gates, 58, was inside, after reportedly forcing open a stuck door.

According to his police report, Sgt. James Crowley asked Gates to step outside to talk, and Gates began screaming, accusing Crowley of being a "racist police officer." Gates was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. A number of people - most prominently, President Barack Obama - rushed to his defense.

But Lorenzo Wyche, 32, is among those who wonder whether Gates picked the right time to take a stand. Wyche, a black restaurateur and Atlanta resident, said his generation may not be as quick to ascribe nefarious motives to police as Gates' generation. "I didn't grow up with dogs chasing me down," he said.

For some black men, the solution is to try to avoid the possibility of confrontation altogether. Graham, the author, lives with his family in the mostly white suburb of Westchester, N.Y. If the house alarm goes off, his wife goes to the front gate to meet police. He fears they will mistake him for an intruder.

In Detroit, Tony Spearman-Leach, 42, chief communications officer of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, said he gets tailed by police three or four times a year. He gets pulled over, on average, once a year, but has never received a ticket.

In 1997, Aaron Campbell argued with sheriff's deputies in Orange County, Fla., after he was pulled over for a suspected lane-change violation. He was pepper-sprayed and thrown in a police car. Campbell happened to be a major in the Miami-Dade Police Department.

"I think that if I was a white major on the turnpike, and was stopped unlawfully, they would have said, 'Hey, major, go on about your business,' " Campbell said.

Campbell was found guilty of resisting arrest. The sheriff's deputies said race had nothing to do with it. Campbell's federal civil suit went nowhere.

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