The Personal Responsibility to End Racial Profiling

The Huffington Post – July 28, 2009

by Mark Thompson

In one week, President Obama covered the waterfront on racial politics. Although, in his address to the delegates at the NAACP’s Centennial he said, “an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a jail,” he also used the same “personal responsibility” rhetoric as he has every time he has spoken to African American audiences as candidate and president. Just days later, he would answer a question at a prime time press conference regarding the arrest of African American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that would place him in the middle of the debate on racial profiling.

“Personal responsibility,” a Republican vocabulary word born in the Reagan era, plays politically well among moderate and conservative Whites, and even among some White liberals who, unfortunately, have a hard time distinguishing reality from the right-wing noise machine. The “personal responsibility” argument suggests that there is some inherent pathology within African Americans that is disabling. “Personal responsibility” is the modern day replacement for the antebellum term that endured through the middle of the 20th century — “shiftlessness.”

Today, Republicans argue “personal responsibility/shiftlessness” most frequently with the statistic that 70% of African American children are born to single mothers. But according to the Institute for Policy Studies, “the increase in the share of White children living in a single parent home has been much higher (229%) than for Black children (155%) since 1960.” Yet Whites are never accused of lacking personal responsibility or preached to about the subject. And sometimes we Democrats, Lefties and Progressives are too quick to repeat what the Right has popularly propagandized without a careful analysis of this rhetoric’s roots.

I criticized the president for feeling the need to include “personal responsibility” repeatedly and exclusively in front of African American audiences (not to mention his admonition while in Ghana for Africans to get over colonialism). Even he mused aloud to the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson after his NAACP speech about the attention he received. “I’ve noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African American community, that gets highlighted,” Obama said. “But then the whole other half of the speech, where I talked about government’s responsibility . . . that somehow doesn’t make news.”

Enter Gates. Literally. Or Gates attempt to enter into his own home. An arrest is made. The Harvard professor charges racial profiling, and most of us who are African American can immediately identify. Countless studies have proven that African Americans are disproportionately stopped and detained Driving, Walking and Flying While Black. Hence, the NAACP has introduced a mobile rapid response system for African Americans to report police misconduct. I co-founded the Washington, DC NAACP Police Task Force that pressured the DC Police to implement their own profiling study using data collection and analysis. (I even taught a course at the police academy on racial profiling and the historical relationship between African Americans and law enforcement. So, I would love to talk shop on racial profiling instruction with Gates’ arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, a reported fellow teacher on the subject.)

There is no question that the president is an African American who has genuinely lived the African American experience. So when asked about Gates’ arrest he gave an answer which unlike his NAACP speech was unscripted. He said that “the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home…what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

Immediately, the political punditry and police unions focused on “acted stupidly,” and demanded an apology from the president. The demographic to whom “personal responsibility” rhetoric was appealing a week earlier was at risk of alienation. The White House then began Walking Backward While Black. The president invited first, Crowley, then, Gates, over for a beer.

But this does not erase the most important part of the president’s statement at the press conference: “There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”

White House refreshments are insufficient to end racial profiling. As a student of Abraham Lincoln, President Obama knows that Lincoln’s diplomacy by appeasing the South with a plan for gradual emancipation failed to stem the tide of the Civil War. Injustices must be pulled promptly by their very roots.

Why not invite stakeholders on all sides to a National Conversation About Race and Policing as the National Black Police Association has suggested? Why not endorse the reintroduction and swift passage of the End Racial Profiling Act in Congress? This bill would require state and local jurisdictions to practice data be collected by race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, and religion, so as to determine the extent to which profiling exists in a jurisdiction, if at all. For both sides of this debate, this legislation puts the proof in the pudding.

Mr. President, refreshments are insufficient. Without a national conversation and passage of this important legislation, there can be no post-racial America before we achieve an era of post-profiling. With your gifts, Sir, and as president, getting us there is your personal responsibility.


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