Racial justice only for the 'well connected'? blacks ask

Gates's run-in with the law was tame compared with other incidents, one says in an interview.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As debate unfolds in the media over whether the arrest of prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a case racial profiling, some young African-American men are considering it in the real-world context of their everyday lives.

"I understood Gates's humiliation," says Hayden Frederick-Clarke, a public-school teacher in Boston. Beginning when he was 11 or 12 years old, he says, he has been stopped, questioned, or harassed by police more times than he cares to count.

"But into the second or third day [of media coverage], I started to wonder why this case was getting more attention than the more egregious ones," he says.

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Mr. Frederick-Clarke, who lives in the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury, rattles off names that include Oscar Grant, Robbie Tolan, Amadou Diallo, and Rodney King. Unlike Professor Gates's run-in with the law, these minority men were severely beaten, shot, or killed as a result of questionable police force. Racial profiling has been a heated issue in each case.

"It's almost like you have to be affluent, well educated, or well connected to receive any attention from above," Frederick-Clarke says, referring to President Obama's comments Wednesday when he described Gates as a friend and criticized the actions of the police in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Obama is not new to speaking out against racial profiling, having sponsored legislation while in the Illinois state Senate.

But even though there is evidence that racial profiling is common in urban minority communities, fewer than five states mandate discipline for officers found to be involved in the practice, according to a June report published by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I know black people nowadays, especially young people are tired of it," says Keenan Coleman, who lives in Brownsville, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. "You wouldn't want to step outside your house at night to go to the store in some slippers and get stopped for no reason, every day. This happens constantly."

In neighboring Bushwick, Oona Chatterjee is co-executive director of Make the Road New York, which helps young people speak up about the constant police presence in their lives.

"It's going to take more than just this [Gates] incident and media attention to get cities across country to look at how they approach policing," Ms. Chatterjee says.

In effect, young people are being taught that they are suspects and to distrust figures of authority, she says.

Frederick-Clarke agrees, readily admitting that as a result of his and his friends' experiences, he is prejudiced toward police officers.

"I'm not so sure that these are isolated incidents," he says. "The culture of policing encourages them to be more aggressive, disrespectful, or belittling with certain people, namely brown men."

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