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article imageCritic: Media Fails 'Teachable Moment' on Gates–Crowley Affair Special

By Carol Forsloff     Jul 28, 2009 in Politics
Barack Obama called the incident between Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates a “teachable moment.” Some media critics maintain, however, the media exacerbated the problem, taking sides to promote a point of view or failing to give salient facts.
The flaws in the coverage of the incident are recognized by some commentators as particularly telling. The writer reminds us the media was not at the scene of what happened between Crowley and Gates and yet seemingly every reporter had a version or a story to tell, none accentuating the legality of the issues, nor even the moral questions. Many did not even look at statistics on either police abuse of minorities or racial profiling, the author underlines; and thus the Gates - Crowley incident became not a “teachable moment” but instead a missed opportunity for looking critically at the balance of the problem as opposed to taking sides and voicing opinion without research of relevant facts for the media to secure attention. One writer, as an example, had as many as ten articles on the Gates – Crowley incident in a week, virtually all of which were opinions.
According to the Harvard Crimson Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., , age 58, who is professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies, was arrested for disorderly conduct approximately two weeks ago at his home in Cambridge. The police reported he had “exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior.” The report went on to say Gates had accused the officers at the scene of being racist.
The Crimson relates the incident occurred following a woman’s call to police after seeing what she maintained was a man “wedging his shoulder in the front door (of Gates’ house) as to pry the door open.” Police officers who arrived to investigate maintain Gates and a police sergeant, later identified as Sergeant Crowley, were inside the home. The professor allegedly shouted when asked for identifiction, “this is what happens to black men in America “ when asked for identification. He was also reported to have continued in a loud and strenuous manner, “you don’t know who your messing with.” Gates went on to say, after he and Crowley left the house and stood on the porch, that Crowley was racist in his behavior.
From that moment both traditional media and citizen journalists either voiced opinion or reported the incident, each with a different flavor. On both sides of the political spectrum, politicians and their supporters declared their support for either Crowley or Gates. Some, after making the definition that Gates was the provocateur of the incident, reframed the debate, declaring both Gates and Crowley were wrong. Even President Obama weighed in on the affair, first implying Gates had been unfairly treated, and later discussing the potential of the whole incident to be a “teachable moment” for everyone.
Given the criticisms that the media did not outline what was teachable in the moments of the Gates – Crowley incident, but instead have focused on the personalities of Gates or Crowley, often the negative of either man as perhaps a way to reinforce opinion as critics maintain, there are teachable issues. Scholars who have given information about racial profiling as well as police response to minorities can be informative and have the intention to teach, as opposed to inflame, an incident that occurred between an African American male and a white police officer that is not that uncommon in America, as experts maintain.
Before the bombing of the World Trade Towers September 11, 2001, the issues about racial profiling became the topic for scholars. They struggled with securing a realistic estimate about how often non white individuals are arrested by police primarily based on race because a number of incidents may not be reported or complaints not filed. Furthermore they found competing definitions of racial profiling that can get in the way of how individuals interpret an incident as either being racially motivated or not.
In the narrow definition of racial profiling “racial profiling occurs when a police officer stops, questions,arrests, and/or searches someone solely on the basis of the person’s race or ethnicity. Critics typically use this definition when condemning racial profiling, as do law enforcement agencies when denying the existence of racial profiling. At least some legal authorities equate this type of strict racial profiling to racial discrimination itself—which is both unconstitutional and widely scorned in this nation—and they feel that it is relatively rare among law enforcement officials.”
The broader definition of racial profiling is this: “Under this broader definition, then, racial profiling occurs whenever police routinely use race as a factor that, along with an accumulation of other factors, causes an officer to react with suspicion and take action.”
Investigation of the issues prior to 2000 found racial profiling to be widespread, more than originally assumed. The following information was cited at the time. Researchers found in the few places where data was available, significant racial profiling. A New Jersey study found that while black and Hispanic motorists were only 13.5 percent of the highways drivers in that jurisdiction, they represented 73.1 percent of those stopped and searched by the New Jersey State Patrol. Another study in Maryland for the period 1995 to 1997 found although black motorists constitute 17.5 percent of drivers, they compose 72 percent of the drivers stopped and searched by the Maryland State Police.
Opinions differ among blacks and whites about racial profiling, but in 1999 a majority of both races considered it to be widespread with a Gallup poll finding 56 percent of whites and 77 percent of blacks believing it to be a problem. Furthermore it was also found 72 percent of young black males between the ages of 18 and 34 to believe they had been subjected to racial profiling.
Randy Stelly, a long-time newspaper person and head of the Independent Progressive Party of Louisiana, was asked whether he was ever profiled racially. He is a Creole man who declares his identification with his African and American heritage.
He said: "It's hard to say about that. I have been stopped on the highways a number of times by police. But I tend to drive too fast, so I knew that. Were other drivers who were white driving too fast and not pulled over? Yes, but I wouldn't be able to say it was racial profiling for sure? Maybe they just didn't catch the other drivers, although I could see the difference. I always treat policemen and people of authority with utmost respect. If I believe they treat me unfairly, I wait until after the instance and then rush right down to official offices and make a full report. I think racial profiling does occur, but still people should be careful about how they talk to police, not because it's against the law or anything but because it can give you a better place to comment later."
But what is racial profiling really all about in the United States and is it really a problem?
Racial profiling, according to Amnesty International, is a serious problem and has increased in frequency following the 9/11 attacks. From July 2003 to August 2004, Amnesty International studied racial profiling by law enforcement agencies in the United States. The research was broad-based and intensive as foundation for examination of results and included review of state laws, the U.S. Supreme Court’s protections as outlined by the Constitution, federal policies pertinent to the subject, international treaties, covenants and laws, national opinion polls, U.S. census data and well as what is reported to be a wide range of literature on the subject. This is what the organization found:
A staggering number of people in the United States are subjected to racial profiling:
• Approximately thirty-two million Americans, a number equivalent to the population of Canada, report they have already been victims of racial profiling.
• Approximately eighty-seven million Americans are at a high risk of being subjected to future racial profiling during their lifetime.
• Racial profiling directly affects Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans, Persian Americans, American Muslims, many immigrants and visitors, and, under certain circumstances, white Americans.
• Racial profiling happens to both women and men, affects all age groups, is used against people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and occurs in rural, suburban, and urban areas.
• Racial profiling of citizens and visitors of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and others who appear to be from these areas or members of the Muslim and Sikh faiths, has substantially increased since September 11, 2001.
The organization found profiling occurs in almost every context of daily life including walking, shopping, driving, standing at airports, while at home and traveling to and from the nation’s airports.
The question becomes not whether the Gates–Crowley incident was racial profiling or which individual was wrong, if not both, but how incidents like this can bring discussion to the public on the nature of a problem that is reported widespread, according to authorities.
Given the complexity of the issues, news and opinions that have taken sides in the matter, as the first author in this article maintains, detract from the issues in general when they don’t include relevant national facts about the problem and quickly evaluate “facts” when they don’t have the relevant information in balance.
As information unfolds, it is likely more will be known about what mistakes were made during the Gates-Crowley affair that can add to the “teachable moment” Obama believes would be a good thing and bring to focus how to properly exercise media responsibility. The critic of the media in this instance declares that’s really the role of the media and suggests it take responsibility for doing that and tone down what some might consider rhetoric which can foster focus on the negative and teach instead what both the black and white communities need to know for healing.
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