Trials of a Hip Hop Educator: Racial Profiling in a Post-Racial America?
By Tony Muhammad
The past few months have indeed been strange (but yet not surprisingly strange) for a few of us in and among the conscientious Hip Hop community in relation to encounters with police. On the afternoon of Friday, May 8th, I, myself, was arrested for the very first time in my life. I wasn’t taken to jail, but I was fingerprinted on the spot and fined, charged with soliciting in the city of Miami Gardens, Florida. What was I actually doing? I was passing out invitations for a special Mother’s Day program at my mosque. I was passing out the invitations in traffic as many other FOI (Fruit of Islam) were doing throughout Miami-Dade county, nationwide and internationally. I was stopped by a police officer and asked if I was selling anything. I said “No.” He inquired about the Final Call newspapers that were in a bag I was carrying. He asked me if they were for sale. I told him that they were not for sale, but that we accept donations for them if offered. It was at this point that the officer asked for my ID and the “arrest” took place. After he was done filling out forms and handed me the fine, the officer mumbled some words that sounded like I was permitted to leave but had to meet him on that same corner in an hour. I said to him, “Officer, I have a mosque meeting that I have to conduct in an hour. Why is it necessary that I meet with you in an hour?” The officer then explained himself in a louder and clearer voice. He said, “No! I will let you go ahead and sell your newspaper for another hour. You can go ahead. I won’t stop you.” I found this to be rather odd, practically like a set up. Like, if I got pulled over and ticketed for speeding, would it make sense for the police officer that pulled me over to say that its okay for me to continue speeding since he already caught me? I shook my head and said, “No.” I walked away, got in my car and drove off. A week and a half later, after the officer finally submitted the paperwork of the arrest, the charges were dropped by the judge even before I had the opportunity to make a motion for an appeal. Yet and still, the arrest is still on record and I have to pay to get it expunged. So, even though I am not guilty of any wrong doing, I still need to pay as if I was.
Fellow youth advocates Wise Intelligent (of Poor Righteous Teachers) and Paradise Gray (The Arkitect of X-Clan) have likewise experienced ridiculous arrests recently. Wise was falsely suspected of drug dealing, literally in front of his home in Trenton, New Jersey. In the end, he was charged with “obstructing an investigation” since they couldn’t charge him with anything else. Paradise was falsely charged with blocking a door entrance while video recording a public demonstration in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The reality of it all is that incidents like these continue to be an every day experience for Blacks and Latinos in the United States despite now having a President of the United States that is of color. According to CNN, a 2004 Gallop Poll revealed that 67 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos believe they have experienced police discrimination. Amnesty International estimates that in the United States 32 million people (approximately the same amount of people that live Canada) have been subjected to racial profiling. In truth these statistics are more than likely conservative because they are only based on documented cases. When taking class into account, we would more than likely find that there is a sea of undocumented cases. It has been shown that poor people of color are least likely to know what their rights are in relation to treatment by police. This is especially the case of immigrant populations where language barriers may exist. Official statistics also do not indicate percentage of false arrests or the amount of people there are that have accepted false charges in plea agreements in exchange for no jail time. More than likely, poor people of color, who also tend to be least aware of their legal rights, disproportionately make up a great percentage within this category. Coherently, it has also been shown that poor people of color are least likely able to afford adequate legal defense and are pressured to deal with court appointed lawyers who usually try to work on ending court cases as quickly as possible; seldom, if not ever, in the best interests of defendants.
Since Harvard Professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in front of his Cambridge, Massachusetts home on Thursday, July 16th it has re-sparked much nation-wide discussion on the realities of racial profiling, involving even President Barrack Obama in an almost “out of character” way (initially publicly saying that police acted “stupidly” in the situation). As the story goes, after returning from a trip to China, Dr. Gates (along with a driver from a local car company) was seen by a white woman breaking down his “jammed” front door. The white woman alerted police that a “Hispanic looking” man (much likely the driver) and another man (much likely Dr. Gates) were trying to break into the house. When the police showed up Dr. Gates was asked by Sgt. James Crowley for ID to prove that he lived at the residence, which he provided. However, in the midst of it all, Dr. Gates demanded that Sgt. Crowley give him his badge number and, according to police, angrily accused the police of being “racist.” After ignoring the request for the badge number several times, the officer stepped outside. When Dr. Gates followed the officer outside, he was arrested for “disorderly conduct” and was detained for several hours. Less than a week later, after much media attention, the charge was dropped.
Several noted journalists have recently written articles criticizing the fact that so much attention has been given to Dr. Gate’s police encounter; labeling it a mere distraction. This is especially after President Obama attempted to defuse the hype behind it all last week by having a “beer summit” at the White House with Dr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley (no doubt in attempt to bring more attention to his national health care plans); likewise with the media exposure of Boston Police Officer Justin Barrett being suspended for referring to Dr. Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” in a mass e-mail to his buddies on the force. Overall, I would argue that on a surface level the incident is a mere reflection of what happens to peoples of color on a day to day basis with police and on a larger scale white supremacy. However, if we analyze it in light of Dr. Gates’ attempt to promote a “post-race” identity academic movement since the Presidential Election of Barrack Obama; it serves as a major sign for us. If the police report is correct that Dr. Gates became emotional and accused the police of racism (and there is an overwhelmingly good chance that it did indeed happen) then surely it largely negates the basis of his work in the past half year. Even more evident of this is his announced plans on The Tom Joyner Morning Show recently to do a documentary on racial profiling in response to his experience. In truth, it all reveals how dangerously naïve this “post-racial” false ideology he was trying to push is in today’s times.
Concurrently, on New Year’s Day, it was not a “post-racial” type of thinking that kept BART Officer Johannes Mehserle from irrationally holding a gun to the back of Oscar Grant and pulling the trigger. On June 10th, It was not a “post-racial” type of thinking that kept James Von Brunn from shooting and killing Stephen Tyrone Jones, a Black security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. It was not a “post-racial” type of thinking that kept Broward Sheriff’s deputy Jonathan Bleiweis from sexually abusing undocumented Latin American immigrants in Fort Lauderdale, Florida just because he thought he could get away with it due to language barriers. It is not a “post-racial” type of thinking that is keeping the Miami-Dade County Commission from considering the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center to be financially expendable and shut it down due to financial constraints, despite the great service the Center provides to young people in Miami’s Liberty City community. It is not a “post-racial” type of thinking that is keeping colleges and universities nationwide from downgrading or literally shutting down Black, Latino and overall cultural diversity programming due to budgetary constraints… but yet there is always money available to expand sports (mainly football) programs.
Dr. Gates should be mindful of all of this while making his racial profiling documentary and make sure that it is not just simply a way to capitalize off of his experience, as many academics normally do. Because of his position of influence, it should in fact provide a service! He should also be mindful when it comes to selecting the right crew for such an assignment, preferably people of color that have extensively studied racism and racial profiling in the United States; likewise featuring people of color from different genres that have experienced being racially profiled. Noting Dr. Gates’ track record, the project should be unlike any project he has undertaken before; especially and namely the development of the Encarta Africana Encyclopedia in 2000 (An encyclopedia about peoples of African descent in Africa and the Diaspora) which involved racial profiling itself. It involved the hiring of merely 3 Blacks out of 40 full time writers. In truth, there is no coincidence that the only Hip Hop entry in the project was “Sir Mix-A-Lot.” I guess “Baby Got Back” but if Dr. Gates wants to show and prove that he has authentically learned from the experience he’s going to have to get the right “backing” for such a documentary!
Peace! Until Next Time!
Tony Muhammad teaches American, African American and African History at an inner-city high school in Miami and is currently involved in efforts to reform The African American Voices Curriculum for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Tony is most noted for his work as publisher of Urban America Newspaper (2003 – 2007) and co-organizer of the Organic Hip Hop Conference (2004 – 2008).