Bob Herbert’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (Aug. 1, 2009) is a must-read, and perhaps the best thing written on racism and the police in the wake of ‘Henry Louis-gate’. It is worth quoting at length. First, Herbert points out that only five or six minutes elapsed between the initial report of a possible break-in, and the moment that Professor Gates was cuffed and arrested for being "angry while black."

Herbert writes:

     "The President of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a ‘teachable moment,’ but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it — especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.

     I have nothing but contempt for that message."

Herbert states that among the lessons that should have emerged clearly from this incident are that "Professor Gates did absolutely nothing wrong. He did not swear at the officer or threaten him. He was never a danger to anyone."

On the other hand, writes Herbert:

     "It was the police officer, Sergeant Crowley, who did something wrong in this instance. He arrested a man who had already demonstrated to the officer’s satisfaction that he was in his own home and had been minding his own business, bothering no one. Sergeant Crowley arrested Professor Gates and had him paraded off to jail for no good reason, and that brings us to the most important lesson to be drawn from this case. Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no good reason.

     New York City cops make upwards of a half-million stops of private citizens each year, questioning and frequently frisking these men, women and children. The overwhelming majority of those stopped are black or Latino, and the overwhelming majority are innocent or any wrongdoing. A true ‘teachable moment’ would focus a spotlight on such outrages and the urgent need to stop them.

     But this country is not interested in that."

     "Black people need to roar out their anger at such treatment, lift up their voices and demand change. Anyone counseling a less militant approach is counseling self-defeat. As of mid-2008, there were 4,777 black men imprisoned in America for every 100,000 black men in the population. By comparison, there were only 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white men.

     While whites use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than blacks, black men are sent to prison at 13 times the rate of white men.

     Most whites do not want to hear about racial problems, and President Obama would rather walk through fire than spend his time dealing with them. We’re never going to have a serious national conversation about race. So that leaves it up to ordinary black Americans to rant and rave, to demonstrate and to lobby, to march and confront and to sue and generally do whatever is necessary to stop a continuing and deeply racist criminal justice outrage."

 

–Bob Herbert, New York Times, August 1, 2009