No N-Word, But Still Subtle Racial Prejudice

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

ByABC News
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."