Page last updated at 21:29 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 22:29 UK

Harvard row highlights US tensions

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr is arrested outside his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 16 July 2009 (Amateur photograph)
Professor Gates's arrest has sparked a debate about racial profiling in America

"There is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

That was how US President Barack Obama put the arrest of the black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr into context.

His comments - in particular his description of the arresting officer's actions as "stupid" - have attracted criticism in conservative circles, forcing him to make a surprise appearance at the daily White House press briefing in an attempt to calm the situation.

But for many in America, Mr Obama's evocation of the country's history of racial oppression will have great resonance.

Traffic stops

Professor Gates was arrested outside his own home. A passer-by had called the police after seeing him apparently attempting to force his way in through a damaged front door.

When Sgt James Crowley arrived, Professor Gates indicated that he was the owner of the property and reportedly began accusing Sgt Crowley of racism.

Sgt Crowley then arrested him for disorderly conduct, prompting Professor Gates, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, to allegedly start shouting: "This is what happens to black men in America."

Statistics suggest that he may have a point.

Racial profiling is defined by the UN as "the practice of police and other law enforcement officers relying, to any degree, on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin as the basis for subjecting persons to investigatory activities or for determining whether an individual is engaged in criminal activity".

I would say that this is the sort of thing that angers upper middle-class black people even more than it angers anyone else
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Atlantic Monthly

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has put together a dossier looking at incidences of racial profiling throughout the US.

In Los Angeles - where memories of the police beating of an African-American man, Rodney King are still fresh - the ACLU cites a recent study by Professor Ian Ayres of Yale University which found that African-Americans are nearly three times as likely to be stopped by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as whites.

"These disparities are not justified by crime rates in different neighborhoods where people of color live," Professor Ayres writes. "Nor do the disparities arise because more police are assigned to black or Latino neighborhoods."

In Illinois, a state-sponsored study revealed that black and Hispanic motorists were more than twice as likely as white motorists to be subjected to "consent searches" by the police, yet white motorists were twice as likely to be found with contraband as a result of the searches.


President Obama has a personal connection to the Illinois statistics.

He sponsored the legislation (the Illinois Traffic Stops Statistics Act) that empowered the state authorities to collect the data on traffic stops.

It is clearly an issue that Mr Obama feels strongly about. During his presidential campaign, he pledged to "ban racial profiling", and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, has indicated that ending the practice is a "priority" for the administration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American blogger for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, who writes regularly about the issue of race in America, thinks that Mr Obama's personal experiences may have informed his opposition to racial profiling, and his reaction to Professor Gates's arrest.

A still from the amateur video footage of LAPD officers beating Rodney King
The acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King sparked riots in LA

"I would say that this is the sort of thing that angers upper middle-class black people even more than it angers anyone else, because they tend to be individuals who, by society's lights, are very accomplished," Mr Coates writes.

"Obama has lived as a member of that class for a large portion of his adult life... [his reaction is] not shocking... "

Law enforcement officials in the US are - understandably - unwilling to accept that police officers engage in racial profiling.

The LAPD, in its response to Professor Ayres's study, acknowledged that the statistics showed that African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to be stopped than white people, but refused to concede that racial bias was causing the disparities.

And in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Commissioner Robert Haas has insisted that Professor Gates's arrest was not motivated by racism, and that Sgt Crowley "basically did the best with the situation that was presented to him."

But African-Americans clearly believe that racial profiling is a big problem in the US.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is spearheading a campaign to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would outlaw the practice.

With presidential backing, and the example of Professor Gates to grab the public's attention, it may not be long before Congress acts to make racial profiling a thing of the past.

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