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Status doesn’t allay fears of race profiling

Like Henry Louis Gates Jr., they are professionals, men of status and achievement who have excelled in a nation that once shunned black men.

And for many of them, their only shock -- upon learning of the celebrated scholar’s recent run-in with police -- was the moment of recognition.

They know too well the pivotal moment Gates faced at his Massachusetts home. It was that moment of suspicion when confronted by police, the moment one wonders, in a flash of panic, anger or confusion: Maybe I am being treated this way because I’m black.

Next comes the pivotal question: Do I protest or just take it?

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Kwame Dunston says he has made the calculated choice to take it -- repeatedly. The public school administrator says he has been pulled over more than 20 times in the last decade, but has rarely been issued a ticket. What factor other than race, he wondered, would account for all of those stops?

“It’s more important for me to make it home than to fight for a cause I’m not going to win,” he said.

Dunston, 36, a New York resident who was in Atlanta this week, pointed to the interior of his 2006 Toyota Camry. It was showroom-clean. He doesn’t want police to think he has something to hide.

“My job,” Dunston said, “is to make sure they don’t have any question about what’s inside the car.”

Such anxiety, deeply rooted in the African American experience, has endured into the era of the first black president.

For many black men, the feeling of remaining inherently suspect never goes away, no matter their wealth and status and the efforts by police forces to avoid abuses in profiling.

Lawrence Otis Graham, author of a book on affluent African Americans, said wealthy blacks may, in fact, be subjected to more racial profiling than others.

In upscale white neighborhoods, they sometimes stand out. In fancy restaurants, they’re sometimes mistaken for help. “We become almost numbed by the constant presumptions,” said Graham.

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New attention

Those issues came crashing back into the spotlight with the arrest of Gates, a 58-year-old Harvard University professor, on July 16.

Early that afternoon, Cambridge police showed up at Gates’ home, responding to a tip on a possible break-in. Gates was inside the house, after reportedly forcing open a stuck door.

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According to his police report, Sgt. James Crowley asked Gates to step outside to talk, and Gates began screaming, accusing Crowley of being a “racist police officer.”

Gates was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. A number of people -- most prominently, President Obama -- rushed to his defense.

But Lorenzo Wyche, 32, is among those who wonder whether Gates picked the right time to take a stand. Wyche, a black restaurateur and Atlanta resident, said that his generation may not be as quick to ascribe nefarious motives to police as Gates’ generation. “I didn’t grow up with dogs chasing me down,” he said.

And yet Wyche is also gripped at times by the gnawing suspicion that his black skin makes him a target. He was recently driving in midtown Atlanta. In front of him, an attractive white woman walked across the road, catching his eye. Behind him, a white policeman turned on his lights and pulled Wyche over.

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But there would be no fireworks. The officer warned Wyche about an expired tag on his Porsche, and drove away.

“So that was my moment,” Wyche said, with a laugh. “Did he run my tag just because I stared at this white girl?”

Wyche figures he will never know whether he was profiled. He prefers this mystery to the possible more serious outcomes. At the same time, the difficulty in proving profiling has created problems for police. Last year, members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s civilian oversight panel were incredulous when department officials announced that not one of more than 300 racial profiling complaints was found to have merit.

A Times review of department documents later showed that no claims of profiling -- more than 1,200 -- had been upheld in at least six years. (Racial profiling isn’t confined to black men; women and other groups can be targeted as well.)

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But LAPD Chief William J. Bratton dismissed criticism, saying that profiling allegations hinge on what the officer was thinking, and therefore are nearly impossible to prove. “How,” he said, “do you get inside someone’s mind?”

For some black men, the solution is to try to avoid the possibility of confrontation altogether. Graham, the author, lives with his family on a large spread in the mostly white suburb of Westchester, N.Y. When the house alarm goes off, his wife goes to the front gate to meet police. He fears that if he goes instead, they will mistake him for an intruder.

Vibert White, a University of Central Florida history professor, recalled driving along an Indiana highway and spotting a line of cars pulled to the side of the road. All of the drivers were black men. So White, too, pulled over, figuring that was expected of black men.

An officer walked up and asked him why he had stopped.

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“I told him that I’d seen the line of cars and just reacted,” said White, 51. “He told me, ‘Sir, you can go on with your business.’ I realized how deeply ingrained this lesson had become -- of not causing a ruckus, of just playing the game, of doing what you needed to do in order to live your life.”

Years earlier, he said, he had challenged a traffic stop and ended up in handcuffs.

In Detroit, Tony Spearman-Leach, 42, chief communications officer of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, said he gets tailed by police three or four times a year. He gets pulled over, on average, once a year, but has never received a ticket.

He keeps his replies clear, respectful and short. Each time the officer walks up to his black 1991 Volvo S70 sedan, his mind weighs the same questions.

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“I know it’s because I’m black, and I’m driving the most conservative car you can get your hands on,” Spearman-Leach said. “But you have to weigh what to do. If I fight, am I going to escalate the matter? Is this a battle worth fighting?”

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Fighting it

Leach’s answer has always been no. But before the Gates incident, other black voices had been encouraging people to say yes.

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In January, Baratunde Thurston, a contributor to the influential blog Jack & Jill Politics (which bills itself as a voice of the “black bourgeoisie”) argued that with a black president entering office, it was important to speak up about such issues, rather than bury the lingering problems of race.

In the past, speaking up has sometimes brought real change. In 1992, Robert L. Wilkins, a Washington attorney, refused a Maryland trooper’s attempt to search his rental car with a drug dog. His federal lawsuit forced the state to enact a new training regimen for troopers, and to end race-based blanket drug sweeps.

But fighting back does not always yield such results.

In 1997, Aaron Campbell argued with sheriff’s deputies in Orange County, Fla., after he was pulled over for a suspected lane-change violation. He was pepper-sprayed and thrown in a police car. Campbell happened to be a major in the Miami-Dade Police Department.

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“I think that if I was a white major on the turnpike, and was stopped unlawfully, they would have said, ‘Hey, major, go on about your business,’ ” Campbell said.

Campbell was found guilty of resisting arrest. The sheriff’s deputies said race had nothing to do with it. Campbell’s federal civil suit went nowhere.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kate Linthicum and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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