Should black Americans trust the police? That long-simmering question reappeared last week with the news that Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University's famous professor of African-American studies, had been arrested outside of his Cambridge, Massachusetts home. "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates asked the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who had responded to a report of two black men breaking into Gates' house. As it turned out, Gates and his driver were just trying to dislodge a jammed front door.
According to the police report, Gates exhibited "loud and tumultuous behavior" in a public place and was therefore arrested for disorderly conduct. According to Gates, Sgt. Crowley repeatedly refused to provide his name or badge number, and arrested Gates after the professor's identity—and his right to be inside his own home—had been clearly established. Sgt. Crowley maintains that he's "done nothing wrong," though the fact that the Cambridge police dropped all charges lends significant weight to Gates' version of the story.
But does that make it a racial story, rather than an example of a bullying cop versus a rude or outspoken civilian? Not according to some conservative writers. As The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto put it: "Is this what happens to black men in America? We'd say it's what happens to men in America who are mistaken for burglars." That's a persuasive interpretation. National Review's pseudonymous blogger Jack Dunphy (an LAPD officer writing under a "nom de cyber") went a little further. "The claim that Gates has been 'profiled' is ludicrous," Dunphy wrote. "If there's an apology that's owed, it's not from the police."
It's certainly possible that both Gates and Crowley were acting like jerks, though that hardly entitles the officer to arrest Gates (or receive an apology from him). But also consider the interpretation offered by the conservative black journalist John McWhorter, a writer who is perhaps best known for criticizing the racial politics of American liberals and arguing that "hip-hop holds blacks back." As McWhorter argued at The New Republic, "the relationship between black men and police forces is, in fact, the main thing keeping America from becoming 'post-racial' in any sense."
What he means is that despite the vast and self-evident progress America has made on race, black men—including successful Harvard professors—still have some very legitimate reasons for distrusting the police. Is that so far-fetched?
Consider the historical backdrop. Counting just the years since the abolition of slavery, black Americans endured roughly a century of Jim Crow rule, where state and local officials (North and South, and most obviously including the police) systematically deprived them of their rights. That included the right to vote, the right to acquire and use property, and the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. Yes, those events happened in the past. But there are black men and women alive today with a clear memory of that state-sanctioned abuse.
More to the point, over the past three decades, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have waged a costly and disastrous war on drugs that has savaged America's black neighborhoods and imprisoned a staggering number of black men. As Reason's Radley Balko has documented, the drug war has produced hyper-militarized police departments and thuggishly violent police officers. And while this destructive behavior certainly hasn't been limited to the inner city, African American communities have arguably borne the brunt of it. The drug war is also directly to blame for the fact that America now incarcerates a record 2.3 million people, with roughly one in five state prisoners and over half of all federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.
In a post-arrest interview, Gates said that he now "wants to do what I can so that every police officer will think twice before engaging in this kind of behavior." While we may never know if Gates was actually the victim of racial profiling (rather than just aggressive and inappropriate policing), his outrage can still help those who have been—and will be—racially profiled. The best way to get law enforcement to "think twice" is by exposing the drug war's pernicious effects on America's criminal justice system and working to end the war itself.
To that end, Gates should consider a very potent remark made by David Simon, co-creator of HBO's acclaimed television series The Wire. In response to a questioner who demanded to know what Simon's solution to the drug problem would be outside of prohibition, Simon shot back:
Look. For 35 years, you've…marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse.
To put it another way, McWhorter, Balko, and Simon have begun a conversation about race, drug prohibition, and criminal justice that the country desperately needs to have. Hopefully Gates will join them.
Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.