men, masculinities and gender politics

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Racial Mis-Profiling More Commonplace Among Black Men

From boxer Mike Tyson to the late superstar Michael Jackson. From O. J. Simpson to more recently disgraced serial philanderer Tiger Woods, everywhere you look, it seems that some Black man somewhere is under the unrelenting public microscope for some sort of personal transgression. Moreover, these personal missteps seem to be magnified by an ever carnal, voyeuristic media all too eager to propagate long held stereotypes of men of color, in particular, black men as deviant, psychotic menaces to the larger society.

Over the past few months, I have been “mixing it up” in the blogosphere with fellow bloggers on this and other contemporary topics of the present day. I have taken the position that Black men tend to bear the brunt of many of society’s frustrations and are often targeted in a negative manner.

Responses to my statements have varied. I have been praised by proponents for having finally opened up a much needed, yet rational dialogue on such a controversial topic. Detractors have accused me of being just another enraged, ill-informed, typical paranoid Black man who is always quick to revert to engaging in racial polarizing politics as opposed to looking at hard truths. There is no doubt that I have struck some tender nerves in the blogging world.

What was even more troubling was that those who were critical of my stance argued that Black men tend to be more criminally prone than other groups and more often than not, are guilty of such transgressions. Needless to say, I was offended by such blatantly bigoted statements and engaged in a round of professional, yet, at times, icy conversations. The dialogue that was exchanged back and forth between me and the respondents to my column shall remain private. Suffice it to say, that there was never a dull moment.

I, like many people across race tend to harbor strong opinions on this issue. It was exactly due to this reason that I decided to do some serious ruminating. I came to the fairly rapid conclusion that I was indeed correct in my assertion. I employed various local and national examples of racial mis-profiling to bolster my case. Being a modern post modern civil rights child who came of age in the early 1980s, I cannot remember the overt, sordid, racially inflected practice of lynchings, Jim Crow and other forms of humiliation and degradations that were inflicted upon a large segment of the Black populace. However, I am astute to the fact that Black men bore the brunt of these inhumane atrocities. Their possible innocence was never considered. They were convicted by a dehumanizing legal system and in the mind of a largely racially bigoted populace.

Moreover, I am old enough to remember more recent encounters where Black men were falsely targeted as criminals. The 1989 Boston, Massachusetts case of Charles Stuart came to mind. Stuart was a 29 year old married man who killed his pregnant wife, shot himself in the abdomen, frantically dialed 911 and gave police a description of the supposedly “raspy voiced” Black man who had committed such a horrific crime. Being reminded of this case almost conjured up memories of a South Carolina woman Susan Smith, who in November 1994, brutally drowned her two children at the bottom of a lake in Union, South Carolina. Almost immediately afterwards, Smith had the audacity to go on national television tearfully describing to a horrified nation that a twentysomething Black man with a ski mask drove off with her 3 year and 16 month old boys. When the racially charged smoke cleared, the public was alerted to the fact that both Stuart and Smith were the sadistic, deviant culprits of their own horrendous crimes. Smith committed suicide by jumping to his own death into Boston harbor. The fabricated image of evil, rapacious Black men was just that: a fabrication.

While the truth prevailed in both cases, the larger issue that emerged was the alarming vulnerability of Black men to such sinister allegations. Had law enforcement officials in each of these cases had not been so effective in quickly zeroing in on the inconsistencies of Smith and had Stuart’s brother not curried up had the moral decency to inform the Boston police with the truth, two innocent Black men could have been arrested, tried and unfairly convicted. It would have been reminiscent of the 1962 film “To Kill A Mockingbird” style of justice. Such a predicament reminds me of radical comedian Paul Mooney who acerbically joked on his unabashedly, pull no punches 1994 comedy CD “Race,” that levying criminal accusations against Black men was becoming so commonplace that he was thinking of starting an agency 1-(900- BLAME A NIGGER).

Another important factor to acknowledge is that this is not a situation relegated to poor and lower income Black men. Upscale Black men can also fall prey. There a countless stories of Black attorneys, professors, businessmen and other professionals being stopped, interrogated and in some case, booked and imprisoned for being seen as “suspect.” Remember Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, being questioned and eventually arrested while being in his own house last summer?

I can share with you stories even closer to home. My three brothers (all professionals) have had to endure angry and humiliating situations where they have been stopped and questioned by police due to the fact that they were “DMB.” Driving while Black and male. Most of the time, the level of interrogation and confrontational behavior from officers has been minimal, yet personally disturbing. It is needless stress rearing its pernicious head.

This is not to say that every Black man who is apprehended or accused of a crime is innocent. There are indeed cases, where police have been justified in proceeding with legal appropriate remedies as well. Last month, in the town where I live, there was a Black man who filed a false police report. He eventually recanted his story and is now appropriately awaiting prosecution charges.

One can only shudder at thinking how many Black men – or innocent people of any race are sitting in prison today because some sorry, sad, psychotic person decided to target them as the assailant of a crime they did not commit. It is probably safe to say that a disproportionate number of these individuals are Black men and a growing number are Latino males. Based on these experiences and supporting factual data, I still have to conclude that my assessment is correct. Hopefully law enforcement will begin to make a more concerted effort to meticulously use more prudence in determining how to address the issue of racial profiling. If so, many people, of all races, will be spared much grief.

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Elwood Watson is a full professor of History,  African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. He is the editor of several anthologies, among them Searching The Soul of Ally McBeal: Critical Essays and Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity. Both are published by McFarland Publishers. He is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in The Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008).

The author and co-author of several award winning academic articles , he is the co-editor of a collection of essays on masculinty tentatively titled In The Company of Aniexty: Performing American Masculinities that will be published by Indiana University Press (Fall 2010). His next monograph will be an examination of cosmopolitan racism and sexism.  

He can be reached at watsone [at] etsu.edu or http://faculty.etsu.edu/watson