No N-Word, But Still Subtle Racial Prejudice

Profiling targets black professionals in taxis, car showrooms, highways, hotels.

July 24, 2009, 1:47 PM

July 24, 2009— -- It was an argument over a parking space that sent Paul Butler, a fresh-faced African American federal prosecutor to jail in 1990.

"A neighbor was upset with me over a parking space and called the police, but when I showed them my Justice Department badge, these guys arrested me," said Butler, now a professor at George Washington University Law School.

"I tried not to get angry, but the whole thing was patently ridiculous," he told

The decade-old incident was not unlike the Henry Louis Gates confrontation with Cambridge, Mass., police that has dominated headlines this week.

In Butler's case, he was dressed in street clothes and "like any other young black man" who was just starting out, lived in a poorer neighborhood when police confronted him over a parking dispute.

"I was trying to do the right thing and explain the situation," said Butler, who admitted that the he "got uppity."

"I had been working at a law firm in D.C. and had joined Justice to be one of the good guys," he said. "I moved to not the nicest neighborhood and they were seeing me as just another black guy on the street and presumed I was guilty and arrested me."

Butler is one of many professional African Americans who have echoed their own personal encounters with discrimination -- some in incidents with police and others in the every-day business of hailing a taxi cab, buying a car or finding a parking space at a family wedding.

These Americans, who have joined the ranks of the middle and upper classes as lawyers, judges and television commentators, recount the ever-present sting and indignation of racial profiling.

Though President Obama recently told the NAACP that he believes there is less racial discrimination than ever in the nation's history, in reacting to the Gates arrest, he said the country has "a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

Decades after the civil rights movement, affirmative action policies and even the election of the nation's first black president, black professionals tell stories of always carrying identification, watching white Americans "purse-clutching" when sitting beside them on a bus and not being recognized in their own work places when dressed casually.

And when it comes to the law, police are still intimidated by black men, according to Butler.

"The black male body has this resonance, almost a challenge," he said. "It becomes a vehicle for fear. It scares people and makes them think about violence and all the stereotypes that trace back to slavery."

"You get into these contests with the police and are basically submissive and don't look them in the eye and are submissive and say, 'sir' a lot. And if you are deferential, maybe they don't arrest you."

Racial Profiling Still Exists

According to Butler, who wrote, "Let's Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice," law enforcement faces the double task of making communities safe, but also treating people fairly.

When Butler provided his identification to police, they "smirked and said, 'You probably know this already: You have the right to remain silent.'"

A jury dismissed his case in 15 minutes.

Even Isaac Farris, whose uncle, Martin Luther King Jr., has become the icon for American equality, faces personal discrimination. One incident occurred as recently as two days ago.

Farris, 44, was dressed casually when he walked into a Lexus showroom looking to find out more about hybrids while his car was being repaired.

"It was my day off and I was in jeans and a Polo shirt," he told "Other people came in and happened not to be black, and salesmen immediately jumped on them. In times like this where car dealerships are ghost towns, I kind of noticed."

Eventually, Farris approached a salesman about a car that runs about $80,000. "Before I could hardly get it out, he said, 'I don't know if this is really the car for you.' I am not saying it's a cheap car, but the last time I checked, I saw a lot of black people running around with Mercedes and BMWs."

"This illustrates why we can say that my uncle's dream has not been realized, even as we elect the first African American president," said Farris, president and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. "I'm not raining on all the great accomplishments, but it goes much deeper than that."

"It is something that every day you see subtly," he told "You can't have 200 plus years of institutionalized racism and obliterate in 20 to 30 years, even with the election of a black president."

But, when he has a situation like this, Farris says he "walks away with a sense of hope" because "this person has experienced me and has kind of come into my space and knows that not all black people represent the stereotypes."

David Mitchell, a Maryland state trial judge, could not recount his own experiences, but said numerous Columbia Law School colleagues had regaled their own.

"It's part of American life," Mitchell, 64, told

One friend, dressed in a tuxedo, was attending his daughter's fancy wedding reception at a city hotel. "When he went to move his car and returned to the lobby of the hotel, someone handed him their keys thinking he must be the wait staff. He kept his dignity but responded."

Racial Prejudice in Workplace

Another was working diligently late at night in his law office. "He was trying to stay on top of things when one of the senior partners ambled by the open door," said Mitchell. "All he saw was a black man pouring over papers and called police. He didn't think the young man could work there."

"It happens because we still run stereotypical behavior," he said. "You get on the bus and people change their seats or 'clutch the pearls,' holding tighter to their purses."

Syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, also assailed the "every day discrimination" faced by African Americans, but said the issue is "murkier" than ever before.

"Nobody's called me the N word in awhile," he told

"The older I get, the less I tend to get profiled," said Page, who is 62. "The clarity of the old discrimination is missing now and when I walk into a car dealership dressed like a low-income person, does it matter if happen to be black?"

"We have an era now in which discrimination by race is muddled by class and gender," he said. "It's the fascinating aspect of the Gates story, the way it plays out in chatter: a snooty upper-class black guy and a working-class Boston cop."

The "racial scenario," according to Page, is unlike the white police who unleashed police dogs on civil rights workers in the 1960s.

Still, he has seen his share of subtle and not so subtle profiling. Taxi drivers have passed him by in the middle of the night, shaking their heads or raced to the white couple rather than Page and his wife.

One black taxi cab driver told Page recently, "It's a good thing I recognized you, or I wouldn't have picked you up."

The columnist laughed and said, "That's part of life in the big city. Most black folks are used to it. It's so much a part of our lives. But it doesn't mean we like it."

Page was once stopped by police in the evening rush hour, asking if he had his seat belt on.

"I had unfastened it to get out my wallet and license and he let me go," he said. "But it was a very odd thing, the fact that he pulled me over in the first place. I wasn't breaking the law."

In racial profiling for drugs, Page has been pulled over in airport security lines with other single men, then dismissed when his family appeared. Like other African Americans, he, too, is always nervous about traveling Interstate 95 through New Jersey to New York City, where racial profiling became notorious in a state investigation several years ago.

"My view is that racial profiling is a part of life, but that race should not be the single factor," he said. "But it is understandable for race to be a factor like gender. But we shouldn't fool ourselves. If we just use that we miss people."

Police Profiling Effects Blacks and Whites

Even Judge Mitchell said he had trouble selecting a jury recently for a trial involving police aggression, because there were a number of whites and blacks who could not believe testimony of the police officer because they had "such negative experiences" with the police.

Paul Butler, whose book dissects racial profiling, agrees maintaining a balance between public safety and civil rights is a delicate one.

In another encounter recently while writing his book on the topic, Butler used his expertise in a teachable moment with two black policemen who were ready to arrest him on his own front porch.

Butler's car was being repaired, and as he walked from campus to his new home in the leafy suburbs, a police car followed the professor.

"I see this car with two cops looking at me and know they are thinking, 'Who's this black guy?' They keep following me and I finally stop in the middle of the street," he said.

When asked if he lived in the neighborhood, Butler replied, "Do I have to live in this neighborhood to walk here?"

Police made Butler lead them to his home a block away: "We know the neighborhood and you don't live in this house," they said. "If you do, prove it and go inside.'"

Butler sat on the porch, refusing to go.

"It was a creative process," he said. "In the end they actually called for a back-up, just like Skip (Gates). When the guy on the radio called to say he had the wrong address, I corrected them and they said, 'Thank you.'"

"Does this ever bother you?" Butler asked the black officers, and began to recite from the book he was writing.

Their response: "Why does it bother you if you know you are right? We are just trying to do our job."

So Butler took his book out of his backpack and read to them until a neighbor eventually confirmed it was, indeed, Butler's home.

"It was a surreal moment," he said. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Police say we focus on more black men because they commit more crimes. But this is because you are looking for things and finding them."