When Professor Charles Ogletree lectured last summer about his new book, The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America, I was an unconvinced listener.
Wasn't the subject matter a little thin? Yes, Professor Gates' brief arrest in Cambridge was a classic example of racial profiling. Obviously the Cambridge cop had a assumed a Black man had no business in Gates' upscale home. No less surprising was that Gates' class position and celebrity made the incident go away without many longterm repercussions. And equally obviously, President Obama had made a very rare mistake in his handling a race issue by responding candidly to a press question that the arresting officer "acted stupidly." On this topic, Obama saying the obvious had the effect of, in Ogletree's words, of "blackening" our so carefully non-racial President.
But a book about this stuff? I see poor Black men jacked up by police in my poor Latino neighborhood as often as once a week. Latino drunks on the street are sometimes ignored while the Black drunk gets stood up and his stash poured out. These scenes are a reality of urban life; what happened to Gates is unusual only because his prominence meant the world noticed this nasty little injustice.
But having just read Ogletree's book, I think my easy dismissal was partly wrong. The Harvard Law professor has done something different: he has collected stories of racial profiling from prominent, accomplished Black men and simply passes them on, four or five paragraphs each, over one hundred pages of text. These are people who, if they were white, would almost certainly never experience these kinds of routine humiliation that are so commonly visited on poor citizens. By themselves, each of these incidents is small -- collected together, they wear any thoughtful reader down. What would it be like to live with a niggling fear that something like this might happen at any time?
In this small way, Professor Ogletree's book "works."