Please, Professor Gates!

Celebrities can focus our attention on the serious issue of racial profiling, but they don't need us as much as those who have no voice in the system.

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In an interview with The Root after the ordeal of his arrest in his home in Cambridge, this week Harvard professor (and The Root’s editor-in-chief) Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. announced his intention to make a PBS special about race and the criminal justice system. It would bring welcome attention to an important and still underreported issue.

Although Gates’ experience has been described as racial profiling, the problem of race and the criminal justice system is more complex. It includes police brutality (including the increasing and sometimes deadly use of Tasers), disparate sentencing, poor prison conditions, harsh and often racially disparate sentencing, and a range of barriers to the reintegration of ex-offenders. Any one of these issues would benefit from a thoughtful PBS special, especially one with the scholarly imprimatur of a Gates production.

Gates has developed something of a franchise on PBS, particularly his specials on genealogy. In these programs, Gates and his research team have meticulously traced the lineage of famous black people from Oprah to Chris Rock to Quincy Jones. The segments in which Gates shares the fruit of his research with his subjects is always emotionally wrenching. The stories of the slaves, freedmen, teachers and soldiers who struggled and somehow made it through, reduce his rich and famous subjects to moments of speechlessness and often tears. In this sense, we learn about African-American history through the eyes of exceptional and successful African Americans. We share with them a kind of personal journey into their own family history.

But the problem of race and the criminal justice system are experiences that most urgently affect the unexceptional—those at the bottom, not at the top. As Gates himself said, he knew that someone would come eventually, that a fuss would be made, that he would be heard. Many of us in the middle-class are similarly privileged. But the average African-American man or boy who is wrongly pulled over, detained or arrested does not have this kind of reassurance. It is the perspective of these people that should be the lens through which Gates’ PBS special examines this problem.

Unfair criminal justice practices are unusual and undoubtedly painful experiences for wealthy, famous and highly educated blacks. They serve as a sobering reminder that there are still situations in which race trumps class, education and even celebrity. They are also deeply frightening experiences, as we discover that we are at the mercy of an individual who cannot really see us, but can only respond to an image over which we can’t control. But for hundreds of thousands of young black men and boys, Gates’ experience is the tame variation of a threat they face every day. And the long-term effect on their lives of racial profiling, police brutality and wrongful arrest can be truly devastating.

Gates’ experience has shed a much-needed light on a long-standing problem. News reports have been filled with African-American journalists and professionals sharing their personal experiences with racial profiling. But it would be a mistake to focus on the experiences of those who have a platform to tell their stories. We shouldn’t need celebrities to bring home the seriousness of this problem. The pain, humiliation and injustice visited on the lives of average, poor, black men and women by a criminal justice system that Gates calls “rotten” should be a compelling enough story to hold our attention. It is their voices we need to hear on PBS.

Ironically, in the same week that the media has devoted so much attention to the unwarranted arrest of Gates in his home, three boys -- two black and one white, ages 7, 9 and 11 -- were handcuffed and arrested at their homes in Baltimore for stealing a scooter and a wagon from their neighbor’s yard.

The neighbor chased the 7-year-old to his home and called the police. The boy’s mother was present when the police arrived and clearly did not condone her son’s actions. “Let’s talk to my son,” she reportedly asked. “I don’t have time. I’m locking him up,” the police officer reportedly responded. The second-grader was questioned and tearfully identified the other youths who attempted to steal the wagon with him. The police handcuffed all three boys and took them to a juvenile detention center.

Each boy, accused of attempting to steal a scooter and a wagon from a neighbor’s yard, will return to elementary school in the fall with an arrest record. These are the stories I hope will constitute the center of Gates televised examination of race and criminal justice system.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.