UPDATED (based on feedback from commenters, new information, and some other data)
Is racial bias ever a factor in police work? Was racial bias a factor in GatesGate, the recent incident in Cambridge Massachusetts involving Harvard scholar Skip Gates and the Cambridge Police? Here, I want to relate an incident in which I was involved in which a very strong racial bias clearly occurred, in which the police tried to arrest a black man principally because he was black even though he was totally innocent, and at the same time, gave undue sway to a white man. First a little context, then the parable.
As the facts emerge it becomes clear that Skip Gates was unlawfully arrested by the Cambridge Police, and that while this may not have exactly been a hate crime, there is a reasonably good chance that racial bias was involved. I have a feeling that Skip Gates himself would be the first to point out that this is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, there are much worse cases where racia bias ultimately victimizes a person of color. I assure you that on the same evening dozens, nay, hundreds, of equally black men very much in their own homes were also busted by racist white police officers at various locations across this country, and they didn’t do anything either.
Why was the arrest unlawful? Well, technically, it was not, but he was arrested under a widely used type of statute that is designed to keep the peace but is in fact used by the police to directly punish people who give them lip.
Clearly, race is a factor in this case, which is in part why we are talking about it here. The very validity of the concept of race itself can and should be questioned, and despite modest efforts of educating the public (like this exhibit), a questionable social model of biological race persists in Western society. (See this and this.) Racism is at the root of well known horrific historical events and singular murderous acts. Racial bias affects people’s jobs, people’s health, and increased a person’s chance of being in prison if their skin is not white. Racialized thinking and racism can be very bad for the health of those with subaltern status (usually that means “non white”). Racialized thinking and racial bias can lead to unabashedly bald faced blaming, to absurd fear-based bias amongst members of the same, upper class, to outrageous acts of senseless violence, and to deeply insulting political decisions. Despite a lack of research, there is evidence that race plays a role in policing from the police (staffing) end of things. Driving while black, shopping while black, and apparently being in your house while black, are representitive outcomes of a racialized society. Racial profile and policing can go hand in hand.
This will all get sorted out and there are already strong indications from Cambridge that the ultimate outcome of Gatesgate will be a positive and forward moving learning experience for all. So, while that is happening, let me tell you my story about black and white and the Cambridge Police.
Continue reading Cambridge Police: A matter of black and white