In my previous column, I took the position that Black men tend to bear the brunt of many of society’s frustrations and are often targeted in a negative manner. Well, in response to my column, I received a few e-mails and phone calls from people from various backgrounds. My supporters said they were glad someone finally opened up a rational dialogue on such a controversial topic. Detractors said my article sounded like that of a typical paranoid Black man who reverts to playing the race card in an effort to avoid hard truths.
My critics also argued that Black men tend to be more criminally inclined than other groups of people and, more often than not, are guilty of such transgressions. I was offended by such bigoted statements and engaged in a round of e-mail comments and telephone conversations that were professional, yet tense.
Given that so many people seem to harbor strong opinions on this issue, I decided to do some serious ruminating. Afterward, I came to the conclusion that I was correct in my assertions. I employed various local and national examples of racial mis-profiling to bolster my case. As a modern postmodern civil rights child, who came of age in the early 1980s, I was spared the racially influenced practice of lynchings, Jim Crow and other forms of humiliation and degradations that visited a large segment of the Black populace for decades. However, I am aware that more than often, Black men bore the brunt of these inhumane atrocities. Their possible innocence was never considered. They were convicted in the court of public opinion.
Moreover, I am old enough to remember recent encounters where Black men were falsely targeted as criminals. In the fall of 1994, Susan Smith of South Carolina drowned her two children at the bottom of a lake in Union, S.C. Smith went on national television tearfully describing a 20-something Black man with a ski mask who drove off with her children. This case reminded me of the 1989 Boston-based Charles Stuart saga. Stuart was a 29-year-old who killed his pregnant wife, shot himself in the abdomen, frantically dialed 911 and gave police a description of the “raspy-voiced” Black man who committed the crime. When the smoke cleared, the public learned Stuart and Smith were the sadistic, deviant culprits of their own crimes.
While the truth prevailed in both cases, the larger issue that emerged was the alarming vulnerability of Black men to such sinister allegations. Had law enforcement officials in each of these cases not been so effective in quickly zeroing in on the inconsistencies of Smith’s story and if Stuart’s younger brother declined to admit to police that his brother was indeed “the one,” two innocent Black men could have been arrested, tried and convicted. It would have been reminiscent of the 1962 film “To Kill A Mockingbird” style of justice. Such a precarious predicament reminds me of comedian Paul Mooney who joked on his 1993 comedy album “Race” that levying criminal accusations against Black men were becoming so commonplace that he was thinking of starting an agency: 1-(900-BLAME A NIGGER).
Another important factor to acknowledge is this is not a situation limited to poor and working-class Black men. Upscale Black men can also fall prey to racial mis-profiling. How many of us have heard countless stories of Black professionals being stopped, interrogated and in some instances, booked and imprisoned for being seen as “suspect?” Anyone recall this past summer’s encounter between Cambridge, Mass., police and Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the professor’s home?
I can recite you stories even closer to home. My three brothers (all professionals) have had to endure humiliating situations where they had been stopped and questioned by police because they were “driving while Black and male.” Most of the time, the level of interrogation from officers has been minimal, yet personally disturbing. It is a form of needless stress.
This is not to say every Black man who is apprehended or accused of a crime is innocent. There are indeed cases where police have been justified in proceeding with legally appropriate remedies as well. Last month, we had a local citizen (a Black man) make a false police report. When presented with visual evidence proving his report false, the man recanted his story and is now awaiting prosecution.
One can only shudder at thinking about how many Black men — or innocent people of any race — are in prison today because somebody decided to target them as the assailant of a crime they did not commit. It is probably safe to say a disproportionate number of these individuals are Black men and a growing number are Latino males. Based on these experiences and supporting data, I still have to conclude that my assessment is correct. Hopefully, law enforcement will begin to make a more concerted effort to meticulously use more prudence in determining how to aggressively, yet sensibly address the issue of racial profiling. If so, many people of all races will be spared much grief.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)