Glenn Loury Gets it Wrong

27 07 2009

Or at least some of it.

In a curious op-ed that he penned for the New York Times on the controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Brown University Professor Glenn Loury says the whole affair was “the rough equivalent of a black man being thrown out of a restaurant after having berated an indifferent maître d’ for showing him to a table by the kitchen door, all the while declaring what everybody is supposed to know: this is what happens to a black man in America.”

Perhaps this would be true if the Sgt. Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, performed his duties in according to the letter of the law. But the fact of the matter is that even if Gates got ‘uppity’ and became belligerent, there’s still precious little to suggest that the grey haired professor should have been cuffed for disorderly conduct in his own home or in close proximity to it. This is especially true, if Gates produced an ID with his home address on it, which he in fact did do. Also, I noted in an earlier post, what Gates was accused of doing does not rise to of say violent or threatening drunkness that may lead to creating a nuisance or danger to the public as stated under Massachusetts law.

Secondly, Loury seemed compelled to defend racial profiling by law enforcement on the grounds that “police are at the front line in our society’s response to them. We should be slow to judge them, and slower still to embrace crude stereotypes about their motives — just as they should be slow to conclude that someone is a likely criminal suspect because he happens to be black and male.”

Sigh. Of course, we would not want to unnecessarily malign police men and women and other first responders. Of course, they have very tough jobs. But that does not excuse the pervasiveness and uselessness of racial profiling. Several studies have shown that its counter-productive, whether the context is the war on drugs or the war on terror, which is why much of the law enforcement community has endorsed the End Racial Profiling Act.

ERPA would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice.  It has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Ending racial profiling it and of itself could be an important first step in diminishing the mutual suspicion that exists among people of color and law enforcement and maybe lead to a more cooperation.

Plus, to suggest that the stereotypes of policemen by people of color, who are more likely to be stopped, frisked, and victims of use of force by law enforcement, is somehow as equally powerful as the stereotypes that might exist in the minds of a minority of police officers who carry out such acts is just wrong. This is not to disparage police officers who play by the rules and put their lives on the line everyday, but it is to acknowledge that there is an asymetrical power relationship here.

Thirdly, while Loury does have a point in criticizing candidate Obama for choosing to avoid commenting on last year’s the verdict in the Shawn Bell case and ducking many questions having to do with racial justice generally since he has become president,  its not entirely true that the administration is indifferent to plight of poor black folk.

(Last year three New York City police officers fired 51 shots on the night right before Sean Bell, a 23-year old black man, was to be wed when he hit an unmarked police car twice just after exiting a strip club. Two of Bell’s friends in the car were also injured. All three officers were acquitted. “The judge has made his ruling, and we’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down,” said then-Senator Obama.)

To its credit, the Obama administration has supported an equalizing federal sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. Under current law, five grams of crack carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. To get the same penalty of cocaine one needs to possess 500 grams of cocaine. This creates a 100 to 1 disparity for what is pharmacologically the same drug. The sentencing disparity is widely credited with having a disproportionate affect on the incarceration rates of African Americans.

Of course, the president has not made anything publicly about it, but he has Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, “This Administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences is unwarranted, creates a perception of unfairness, and must be eliminated. This change should be addressed in Congress.”

A bipartisian bill – the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act (H.R. 3245) – is now making its way through the House of Representatives and a companion bill be introduced in the Senate soon too.

Also, the announcement of the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, which is designed to help poor performing schools, will disproportionately help African Americans and Latino students.

Neither the effort to equalize the federal sentencing on powder and crack nor the education initiative were mentioned in Loury’s column.

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One response

27 07 2009
Jason

I have HQ audio of the Henry Gates 911 call, Moderator, If you are interested

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