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US mayors maintain silence
on high-profile racial incident

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

4 August 2009: The US media have been buzzing since the 16 July arrest and release of a prominent African-American scholar and subsequent comments by President Obama. The incident touches a nerve about race and class in America – the very issues that US urban mayors must contend with every single day. Curiously, American mayors, rarely shy in front of television cameras or newspaper reporters, have largely avoided commenting on the controversy.

The incident
On 16 July 2009, Harvard Professor Louis Henry Gates, who is Black, forced his way into his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts after arriving from the airport and finding his front door jammed. A neighbor, witnessing the forced entry, called police to report a possible burglary. Gates showed the responding police officer, who is white, his ID proving he was in his own home. Nevertheless, an argument ensued and Gates was handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.

Asked about the incident during a news conference, President Obama responded, “I think it’s fair to say: Number 1, any of us would be pretty angry; Number 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, Number 3, what I think we know is separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”

Racial profiling
The arrest of Dr. Gates has stimulated a discussion of racial profiling in the US. Studies in most US states indicate a trend of increasing racial disparities in police stops, searches, and arrests. For example, a study of New York City Police Department data from 2005 to 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit educational and legal organization, found that about 80 per cent of total stops were Blacks and Latinos, who comprised 53 percent of the city’s population, and 10 per cent of police stops were whites, who comprised 44 per cent of the population.

The fact of racial profiling is accompanied by the fear on the part of African-Americans of mistreatment by police. Studies show that Black men, wealthy and poor, often fear being stopped by police for no apparent reason. Most Black men feel it is useless to protest; that protest could lead to an escalation of tensions as in the Gates case. As one African-American man who was repeatedly stopped by the police told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s more important for me to make it home than to fight for a cause I’m not going to win.”

The man’s feelings are supported by a study of 1200 complaints of racial profiling against the Los Angeles Police Department over the past six years: Not a single complaint was found to have merit.

The unproductive silence of US mayors
Experts unanimously agree that racial profiling is a product of segregation by race and class in America. US mayors deal with the effects of such segregation on a daily basis: concentrated poverty, underperforming schools, slums, mistrust of police in minority neighborhoods, drugs, and violence, among other pathologies.

The arrest of Dr. Gates, therefore, provided US mayors with an opportunity to discuss many of the issues that are crucial to the health of their cities within the context of race and class in which these problems are rooted. Mayors could have led a national dialogue on urban policy. So far, they have failed to seize the opportunity.

Cambridge, Massachusetts Mayor Denise Simmons, who is Black, apologized to Dr. Gates on behalf of her city and called his 16 July arrest “regrettable and unfortunate.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who is white, had a very different reaction. Daley chastised President Obama for not having “the facts before responding to media questions.”

These are the only US mayors to comment publicly on the issue. Perhaps mayors feel that the issue, however important, would be too distracting from the really hard work of running a city. Or perhaps – 50 years after the passage of civil rights legislation in the US -- mayors still have difficulty discussing race and class.

President Obama invited Dr. Henry Louis Gates and the arresting Cambridge police officer to the White House to talk about the incident. The message was clear: There is no shortcut to resolving problems of race and class other than very intensive and extensive public discussion and debate as well as public engagement, which are necessary steps to bring about greater public understanding and consensus. In other words -- however painful -- Americans must talk.

Viewed in this light, the silence of US mayors is most unproductive.

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