In 1981 a good friend of mine and I drove from Boston to Detroit for a labor conference. At the tail end of the conference, I was asked if I could give a ride to a Scandinavian woman who was attending the conference.
Apparently she wanted to get back to the East Coast. My friend (an African American man) and I looked at each other and immediately declined to offer her a ride. Though I felt very guilty about it, what crossed my mind was the idea of two African American men driving long distance with a very attractive, young, blond White woman in the same car, and the potential ramifications.
As I read Charles Ogletree's "The Presumption of Guilt: The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and race, class and crime in America" I found myself reliving that experience from 1981. The fact that my friend and I had to take into account what could happen to us driving from Detroit to Boston with a White woman in the car was simply not an experience that most white people would ever imagine, let alone take into account. Yet any African American man who did not think through potential ramifications was and is living in a fool's paradise.
Ogletree does a remarkable job of taking the reader through the basic facts of the Gates case. In a calm and deliberate fashion he presents the case. It is particularly striking that Ogletree is in no way impassioned in his writing style, but nevertheless manages to hit every emotional chord that most African Americans I know felt at the time of the Gates incident.
There are really three parts to the book. The first part concerns the Gates case. After reading it there is no way that any reasonable reader could draw the conclusion that Gates had been in the wrong. What is clear is that it was a highly charged incident on both sides, but the bottom line was that Sgt. James Crowley presumed that he had the right to challenge Professor Gates in a manner that he would never have considered had Gates been White. The initial remarks by President Obama suggesting that the Cambridge, MA police had handled this stupidly were ones with which most African Americans could immediately identify given our experiences with the police. Most White Americans, however, either could not accept or refused to consider the disparate treatment received by African Americans at the hands of the police, and many of them were unsettled by Obama's comments.
The second part of the book demonstrates that the Gates incident was not isolated. Ogletree exposes the reader to detailed examples of abusive police behavior. The third part is an unusual appendix. It is a compilation of stories from well-educated African American men, many quite established in business, government and academia, re-telling experiences with police harassment and racial profiling. In the interest of full disclosure, this writer has an experience detailed in that section.
Ogletree concentrates on the experiences of African American men and especially those who society claims, all things being equal, should be above suspicion for common crimes. In that sense Ogletree touches on matters of class, showing that irrespective of the wealth or degrees possessed by an African American, they remain subject to police profiling and abuse. What Ogletree does not examine, but would be well worth further exploration, is another side to class, specifically, what I would call the class resentment on the part of white police officers that becomes racialized. In other words, a tendency among many White police officers who resent the rich but focusing their resentment not on the rich in general but on the African American well-to-do based on the notion that African Americans should not be doing any better than they (White police) happen to be.
This book is a must-read, and one that should be used in classrooms and meeting rooms in order to advance a discussion regarding the way that race and power play out in modern U.S. society. One of the ironies that is touched upon in the book is that even Black police officers can and will racially profile African Americans, pointing to some peculiar ways that even members of an oppressed group can come to demonize their own.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies