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Professor Gates is right

Published Jul 29, 2009 3:13 PM

Racial profiling is another expression of institutionalized racism rooted in a white supremacist ideology under capitalism. In the U.S., racial profiling has tragically become a way of life, like eating, sleeping and breathing. Being targeted based on the color of your skin or your nationality is a terrible burden to bear for any person of color, whether you live in the inner city, barrio, a reservation or in an upper-middle-class suburb.

In a 2004 report entitled “Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States,” Amnesty International documented that in a year-long investigation, an estimated 32 million people (the equivalent of the entire population of Canada at the time) had been racially profiled—the vast majority of them from nationally oppressed groups. (www.amnestyusa.org) One can only imagine how much these numbers have increased over the last five years, not only for those born in the U.S. but also for immigrants.

The police have been, by far, the most feared perpetuators of racial profiling, and understandably so. Police harassment and brutality is so epidemic that pamphlets have been written by activists and progressive lawyers on how one should behave if ever stopped by the police to help avoid arrest, physical assault or even losing one’s life.

This is the broader context in which to understand the July 16 arrest of one of the most respected Black scholars, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who teaches at Harvard University. Gates was arrested by a Cambridge police officer after showing two forms of identification as he, along with a Black limo driver, were trying to unjam the lock to the front door of Gates’ house in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood known as “Harvard Square.”

This incident may have gone unreported, like the millions of other racial profiling cases, if it weren’t for two facts: first, because of Gates’ recognition as one of the most influential African Americans; and, second and most important, because he didn’t back down from the cop. In fact, he challenged the authority of the white officer, who eventually arrested him. In his own style, Gates, who is slightly built and walks with a cane, resisted being racially profiled by an entire police department that has a reputation for its brutality.

Gates was arrested, not because he committed any crime, but because he made a courageous stand against racism when the relationship of forces was not in his favor. Just think of what would have happened if Gates had taken a similar stand in the segregated South. He surely would have been lynched. Black people were strongly encouraged to “stay in their place,” meaning to be submissive and keep their eyes to the ground when interacting with any white person, especially the police.

Black people have been lynched in the South for any excuse; a glaring example is the 1955 lynching of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

The Cambridge police report stated that Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct due to “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior.” In other words, Gates refused to bow down before the repressive state.

The fact that the Cambridge police demanded that President Obama apologize to them for publicly calling their actions “stupid” proves once again that the election of the first Black president has not signaled the end of racism and national oppression, nor does it reflect a “post-racial society”; far from it.

While the police, the mainstream media and the bourgeois pundits want to isolate and downplay every instance of racial profiling, Gates’ resistance has helped to generalize the issue on national and international levels. No matter how this particular development plays out, activists must seize this opportunity to show the need to build a movement based on anti-racist, class-wide solidarity—as workers of all nationalities are losing their jobs, homes, health care and pensions in rapid numbers; and as the economic crisis becomes even more acute.