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Racism still alive and kicking in a civilised era

Sticking to stereotypical profiling is easy, but looking beyond that is more challenging

The ongoing debate about the arrest, brief though it was, of Harvard University's African-American Studies' Professor Henry Louis Gates is a clear reminder of how race issues are still far from being resolved in the United States despite the election of the first African-American president last year. It's also a reminder of how Americans are still susceptible to quickly jumping onto the stereotypical idea of what it means to be black or white.

Gates was recently detained for a few hours after the police was informed about a possible break-in into a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The house happened to be Gates' own residence. The professor had apparently lost his keys and was trying to force open his own front door with the assistance of his driver.

The account of what followed after the police arrived differs. Gates claims the officer, Sergeant James Crowley, treated him like a criminal even after he produced his Harvard ID and proved that he was the lawful resident. Gates claims he was a victim of racial profiling.

Last Friday USA Today quoted David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book "Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work", as saying that minorities, regardless of their education, status or age, can be made to feel vulnerable.

"It's a universal part of the black-American experience, and nothing protects you from it. You can achieve the American dream in every facet of your life, and it can still happen to you," Harris was quoted as saying.

Crowley, on the other hand, insists he did nothing wrong and only arrested Gates after he started shouting at him about being racist and referring to his mother. Apparently he arrested Gates for unruly behaviour, a charge the professor denies.

While accounts still differ, US President Barack Obama decided to jump into the fray soon after the incident, saying on camera that Crowley had "acted stupidly". What followed was the biggest racial debate since Obama took power, and the president himself tried last Friday to cool things down by saying he "could have calibrated" his words differently, before going on to make a phone call to both Crowley and Gates. Eventually, Obama invited the two over to the White House for a drink.

Nevertheless, the debate has been spinning out of control even though what actually happened has yet to be properly established. The disturbing thing about this incident is how many Americans, both black and white, tend to prematurely jump to conclusions with regard to the prevailing racial stereotypes. Many blacks are convinced that Crowley is a racist, despite the fact, which emerged later, that the sergeant has been teaching classes on avoiding racial profiling and is known to have unsuccessfully tried to revive a black basketball star who collapsed through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation a few years earlier.

Some white people, meanwhile, are accusing Gates and other blacks of reverse racism and blaming everything on the race issue.

It's clear that it is hard to put to rest four centuries of racism, and though the American voters have, for the first time in the nation's history, elected a black president, the issue of race is still far from being overcome and resolved.

Apart from the very few who studied at Ivy League universities or became basketball stars or popular rap artists, most African Americans still remain poor and marginalised.

According to the book "Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril", written by a staff member of The Washington Post, more than one-fifth of all African-American men aged between 35 and 44 have been to prison. This is twice the number of Hispanic men and six times the percentage of white men in the same age group. What's more, one of every 14 African-American children has a parent in prison, and 44 per cent of all inmates are black.

An issue such as this cannot be overcome by simply electing a black president. Even categorising Obama, who is half white and was brought up by his white maternal side, as merely black says a lot about the lingering legacy of the notion about white people being racially pure.

Obama can do much more than just have Gates and Crowley over for beer at the White House, but because he is black, any action he takes on the matter will only complicate things and may even become onerous.

As for Thailand, we might learn a thing or two from the incident. The widely debated racism issue in the US deserves close attention because it teaches us to face up to it and discuss what is actually happening in society. Racial prejudice exists in many places, so the biggest challenge is actually overcoming it.


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