July 28, 2009

On police, profiling, and Henry Gates

Guest essay by Sam Sommers*

When it comes to matters of race, the problem with asking how much progress we've made is not that there isn't a right answer. It's that there are two. Ask White Americans about race relations, and most focus on how far we've come. Ask Black Americans, and you're more likely to hear how far we still have to go.

Have we made strides when it comes to racial profiling? Sure. The practice now has a well-known name, jurisdictions keep statistics to track it, and commissions have been established to eradicate it. But what the arrest of Dr. Gates crystallizes is that we still have a ways to go. Whether the neighbor who called police or the officer who arrived on the scene consciously considered race is beside the point. What we know from scores of studies is that race influences our mental calculus -- sometimes when we aren't aware of it, when we don't want it to, and even on the police force.

In psychological research, participants exposed to subliminal photos of Black men are quicker to identify ambiguous images as weapons. Respondents in police simulation studies -- including actual officers -- are more likely to mistake innocuous items for guns when held by a Black man. These are basic human tendencies to which many of us fall victim, yet they aren't inevitable with proper vigilance or training.

That's what makes knee-jerk denials that race played a role in Gates' arrest so disappointing. I'm not arguing that race was the only reason things went down as they did. I wasn't there; details remain fuzzy. But let's be honest: White Harvard professors just don't get charged with disorderly conduct in their own homes. And when Black men of less renown are arrested under similar circumstances, we don't hear about it on the news.

Sure, it's dangerous to read too much into the anonymous comments of web users and the incendiary efforts of bloggers who seek to draw attention (and web traffic) to themselves. But to me, one of the most striking aspects of this story is how angry some White people seem to be in response to it, as if the mere suggestion that race had anything to do with Gates' arrest is a) ridiculous, b) offensive, and c) an indcitment of the American way of life. Check out, for example, some of the initial reader responses to the on-line story of the arrest in my hometown Boston Globe.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there are few things White Americans find more aversive than talking about race. But to dismiss out of hand the relevance of race to Gates' arrest flies in the face of empirical data, not to mention good, old-fashioned, common sense. You don't have to be an expert to understand that things like this just don't happen to White professors at Harvard.

*From the New York Times, posted with the written permission of Sam Sommers. For the entire Times on-line forum, featuring invited essays by seven leading experts, click HERE. Sommers has also written a further update on the case, More Gates Fallout, at his informative blog, Science Of Small Talk.

Sommers is an award-winning social psychologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts who has testified in murder trials as an expert witness on racial bias. My prior posts about his work include:

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