Rep. Doug Gage of Rutland drew criticism last week for remarks he made on the floor of the House about the disproportionate presence of African-Americans among drug crime defendants.
In a sense, Gage was stating the obvious. There is a certain number of African-American and Latino men who travel to Vermont, sometimes taking up residence, in order to sell drugs. He is not the first to observe that they sometimes hook up with young white women who help them in the drug trade.
Gage was moved to make his remarks because a constituent in Rutland who is African-American complained that black criminals in the community were creating problems for law-abiding black people. The entire discussion took place as part of a debate about racial profiling.
So if Gage was saying something that is widely understood as true, what is the problem? If he was racially insensitive in his remarks, how was he insensitive?
The problem comes in the narrow focus of his remarks. Black people are here selling drugs. But so are white people. The individual constituent had a right to convey to Gage his concern about what other black people might be up to, but it was Gageís responsibility as he brought the issue to the floor of the House to be aware of the larger context.
In fact, it is the responsibility of political leaders, as well as law enforcement personnel, to make race an irrelevancy. Training for police on the danger of racial profiling is necessary, not in order to follow a code of political correctness, but to avoid unjust treatment of law-abiding people who might otherwise become the target of police suspicions.
If black drug dealers are coming to Vermont in larger numbers than before, then we are all faced with the need to become especially attuned to the irrelevancy of race. That goes for individuals of all races. Black citizens are subject to the same biases as white people are ó persuaded sometimes that black people are to be feared. That is what bias is, and it is incumbent on all of us to be aware of it.
In fact, it is not black people about whom we ought to be wary. It is people committing criminal acts, and that category includes people of every race. It is lazy thinking to leap to the conclusion that black people are dangerous, a line of thinking handed down to us by a long history of oppression and prejudice.
Gageís remarks appeared well-intended. They were accompanied with statements to the effect that because he teaches in the prisons, some of his best friends are black. But his words grated on the sensitivities of some because by focusing on race he was perpetuating a bias and an irrelevancy.
Racial profiling is a euphemism for the special attention African-Americans have been receiving from authorities all the way back to the founding of the nation. Through the era of Jim Crow, black people were more or less kidnapped off the streets of the South and forced to work on plantations and in mines and factories. Elsewhere, they were singled out for brutalization as a method for controlling neighborhoods. Following the killing of Trayvon Martin, commentators told of the talk they were inevitably forced to have with their sons about the need to be careful out on the street, where even today the attentions of police or self-appointed vigilantes can lead to trouble with the potential of ruining your life.
Vermont has a documented history of racial profiling, though not as blatant as the stop-and-frisk policy that was used in recent years to intimidate black people in New York. Policymakers and police are working to counter the biases that lead to false conclusions, and training about racial profiling continues to be important. Highlighting the role of one race in a crime problem that has ensnared people of every race is not helpful.
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