Left: University of Washington student Christine Tran. Photo by Nick Feldman.
Left: University of Washington student Christine Tran. Photo by Nick Feldman.

The arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates in July 2009 brought the issue of racial profiling once again to the forefront of US public debate this summer. Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct after being confronted by Cambridge, Mass. police officer James Crowley, who thought that Gates had broken into what turned out to be his own home.

As one commentator suggested, Gates had been guilty of “living in a home while black.”

What ensued was a firestorm of controversy involving issues of racism, police (mis)conduct, class privilege, the intervention of Barack Obama, and even a beer summit at the White House—with the American media providing wall-to-wall coverage of the kerfuffle.

Obviously, a political nerve had been struck by this relatively minor case.

Racial profiling is a US national issue and is manifest in different ways, from police harassment of African American motorists (Driving While Black) to airport employees and airlines mistreating passengers who appear to be Arab or Muslim (Flying While Arab/Muslim).

Racial profiling is thus a generic phrase that can encompass a variety of groups who are targeted for different reasons. Shankar Narayan of the ACLU’s Washington state branch suggests that this concept historically arose with studies that examined police traffic stops and drug-sentencing laws as applied to African Americans. However, this racist practice also increasingly extends to America’s treatment of immigrants.

For instance, an ordinance has been recently proposed in Washington’s King County Council that outlaws the profiling of immigrants. Ordinance 2009-0393 specifies that no government employee should inquire of a person’s immigration status without due cause in situations like his/her access to health care services or dealings with law enforcement.

Though this proposed law is thought to focus on the discrimination faced by Latino immigrants, Asian American concerns would also be addressed given the significant percentage of the community that are immigrants.

While this ordinance would not change much in terms of how King County currently operates, Narayan suggests that it would be significant in codifying into law an anti-discrimination statute that is independent of who is in the county executive’s seat.

The Washington ACLU has thus come out in support of this proposed legislation, suggesting that it would lessen immigrants’ distrust of government, encourage them to cooperate with police investigations, as well as facilitate their use of public health care services without fear of retribution.

Indeed, beyond the concern for immigrants’ rights, these first two issues of restoring faith in the government and police seem to be important motives behind the ACLU’s support of this ordinance.

The only question is whether the government and police deserve the trust of immigrants.

In 2009, the ACLU released a report that documents the US’s dubious progress on racial profiling. “Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States” argues that the “practice of racial profiling by members of law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels remains a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people in African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, and Arab communities.”

Close to home in the state of Washington, the ACLU report suggests that border patrol agents at the Port Angeles entry from Canada are increasingly using “’southern border tactics of racial profiling and harassment against the residents” of the Olympic Peninsula region.

Moreover, on a national level, many people are oblivious to the magnitude of racist profiling in America. In 2004, Amnesty International USA issued a report, “Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, National Security, and Human Rights in the United States,” asserting that a “staggering number of people in the United States are subjected to racial profiling.”

Among its findings, this study shockingly noted that “thirty-two million Americans, a number equivalent to the population of Canada, report they have already been victims of racial profiling.”

Furthermore, it suggested that racial profiling can impact people in almost every aspect of everyday life including not only driving or traveling through airports but also while shopping, attending worship activities, and even simply being in one’s own home.

This last example is something that Henry Louis Gates can certainly attest to.

In Gates’ case, there was much talk about Barack Obama turning the incident into a “teachable moment.” But what was actually taught is dubious in nature.

After offering some mild criticism that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates, Obama was confronted by an outcry from police supporters. As a result, he backpedaled and amended his comments to include criticism of both Gates and Officer Crowley, as well as propose his “beer summit” at the White House to smooth over differences.

The end result?

A contrived photo op where uncomfortable issues of institutional US racism, the criminal justice system, and the targeting of minorities in the Land of the Free were airbrushed away in a “feel-good” media moment.

But if one recalls the 1992 Los Angeles and 2001 Cincinnati rebellions or even the recent 2009 Oakland BART riots (all of which arose in response to police brutalization of minorities), this feel-good moment may last for only so long.

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