Monday, June 01, 2009
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The only thing wrong with New York Congressman Charles Rangel’s quip that President Obama had better bring his ID to East Harlem is that he limited it to East Harlem. A President Obama in his trademark baseball cap, sometimes hip clothes, and sneakers, sans White House entourage and limo, strolling or driving down a dimly lit night time street in any number of poor black neighborhoods could easily be stopped. He wouldn’t have to fit the near textbook profile of a poor, young, black male. He could just as easily be rich, older, a businessman, a professional, star athlete, college professor, or as in the horrific case of NYPD officer Omar Edwards, the police officer gunned down by a white cop.
There have been countless cases where prominent black men have been stopped, frisked, shaken down, and humiliated by police officers, trailed by store clerks, and fumed in anger as taxicabs whizzed by them on busy urban streets. Edwards is hardly the first black cop to be victimized by fellow officers. In recent years, there have been more than a few cases where white cops stopped, harassed, attempted to arrest, even arrested, and shot off duty black cops.
The wishful thought was that Obama’s election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat it posed to the safety and well-being of black males. It did no such thing. Immediately after Obama’s election and months before Edwards was shot dead, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and blacks remain just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceives those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race and poverty and crime are firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out. That’s hardly new either.
In 2003 Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope peddling, gang bangers and drive by shooters.
The bulging numbers of blacks in America’s jails and prisons seem to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face. And it doesn’t much matter how prominent, wealthy, or celebrated the black is. The overkill frenzy feeding on the criminal hijinks of former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, O.J. Simpson, and the legions of black NFL, NBA stars, Hollywood personalities, and entertainers who run afoul of the law or are poorly behaved, and of course, everyone’s favorite stomping boy, the rappers and hip hop artists, further implants the negative image of black males. None of them are hardly poor, downtrodden, ghetto dwelling young black males.
There was, however, a mild surprise in the Penn State study. It found that even when blacks didn’t commit a specific crime; whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.
University researchers were plainly fascinated by this result. Five years later they wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as Obama’s political star rose, and legions of whites said that they liked him, and would vote for him, and meant it. Researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn’t commit them. That’s especially important to say, since the fall back line on racial stereotypes is that to link race and crime is not to stereotype since blacks commit the majority of street crimes.
One implication for this is that Obama’s victory was more a personal triumph for him. It did not radically remap racial perceptions, let alone put an end to racial stereotyping. Another is that much of the public still sees crime and poverty through narrow racial lens.
An early newspaper account of the Edward’s shooting minced no words. It said that Edwards was mistaken for a thug. The brazen inference was that Edward’s clean cut look, police badge, and that he was doing his duty in giving chase to a criminal suspect didn’t exempt him from the young black male equals thug standard typecast. Edwards paid the price for that casting. And all Charlie Rangel was trying to say is that the casting could fit any young black who happens to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, even if he’s a president.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com