Perhaps the most consistent theme in hip hop discourse is its bold critique of the criminal justice system in the United States. From its roots in the South Bronx through today, hip hop artists and culture have denounced crime and punishment in the United States in a way that essentially defies the underlying penal philosophy that has been adopted and championed by U.S. legislators for decades. Since the inception of hip hop as a musical genre, hip hop artists have rhymed in a narrative format that starkly informs listeners and fans that the entire fundamental regime of law and order in the United States is suspect, illegitimate and profane. Another example of U.S. law and order as unequal, illegitimate and suspect is currently before the American public yet again.
In another dreadful example of race and profiling in America, we learned yesterday that perhaps THE most respected African American public intellectual in the United States, Skip Gates, had been pulled from his own home and arrested. Returning home after filming a documentary in China, the renowned Harvard Professor found his front door jammed and forced his way into his house. Neighbors called police. When the police arrived, they questioned Gates, requested identification, and then, according to Gates, refused to acknowledge that his home address on his ID matched the address at the home they were tipped to respond. Once Gates became upset and repeatedly asked for the officer's name and badge number, calling the police line of questioning what it was, harassment, racial profiling and modern day bullying, the police arrested him for disorderly conduct. Police claim that Gates exhibited "loud and tumultuous behavior." According to Gates, the loud and tumultuous behavior was the repeated requests for names and badge numbers of police officers.
The news today is that the Cambridge police have dropped the charges against Professor Gates, but we are left with vexing questions:
First, if Professor Gates can be pulled from his home and arrested, based on a neighbor's call (how did the neighbor not know Gates?), then that essentially proves what the hip hop nation has proclaimed all along -- no black or brown face is safe from racism, profiling or discrimination in the United States. Henry Louis Gates was ARRESTED IN HIS OWN HOME for alleged disorderly conduct.
Second, while we listen to unending loops of U.S. citizens claiming that we have entered a post-racial place in America, we witness a hugely important African American intellectual, that spends his life examining and writing about issues of equality and justice, arrested, handcuffed and dragged down to the police station on what charge? Breaking and entering? No, he was inside his own home. Burglary or theft? No, again, he was inside his own place. Assault or battery upon a police officer? No, merely challenged the police verbally and requested their identification. No, he was arrested, charged and detained for disorderly conduct. And, on this charge, you can add Skip Gates to the number of African American citizens in the United States that have encountered the criminal justice system from the inside. Gates himself said:
"There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them," he said in an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday morning. "This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It's one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it."
Arrested for loud and tumultuous behavior?!
Third, the Cambridge police have dropped charges against Gates, but have unequivocally claimed that race had nothing to do with the arrest. Of course, the police must claim that the arrest had nothing to do with race, but who are they kidding? A black man using his shoulder to free a jammed door in Harvard Square in Cambridge? A neighbor not recognizing one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States? The police refusing to leave as soon as Gates provided them his identification where the address on the ID matched the address at the home? The police refusing to leave once Gates started giving it to them for racially profiling him, but instead asking him out of his house so that they could arrest him? All of this has nothing to do with race?
Last, the hip hop nation knows all too well what Professor Gates experienced last Thursday. To a person, my money says that those among us with brown or black faces, have experienced something very much like Gates just has. Hip hop describes this discrimination in raw and exacting detail. Henry Louis Gates, a fan and supporter of the hip hop nation, has now experienced what the nation knows. He said:
"I am appalled that any American could be treated as capriciously by an individual police officer. He should look into his soul and he should apologize to me," Gates said. "If so, I will be prepared to forgive him. I think that poor people in general and black people in general are vulnerable to the whims of rogue cops, and we all have to fight to protect the weakest among us. No matter how bad it was going to get, I knew that sooner or later I would get to a phone and one of my friends would be there to help. . . . I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that criminal justice system is rotten."
We have so much more work to do before we can claim that we have arrived at a post-racial America.