The only problem with New York Congressman Charles Rangel's quip that President Obama had better bring his ID to East Harlem is that he limited it to East Harlem. President Obama, in his trademark baseball cap, sometimes hip clothes and sneakerssans White House entourage and limocould easily be stopped by police were he to take a stroll down a dimly lit nighttime street in any number of poor black neighborhoods. He wouldn't have to fit the near textbook profile of a poor, young, black male. He could just as easily be rich, older, businessman, professional, star athlete or college professor. Or he could be a cop, as was the horrific case of NYPD officer Omar Edwards, who was gunned down by a white cop.
There have been countless cases where prominent black men have been stopped, frisked, shaken down and humiliated by police officers, trailed by store clerks and fumed in anger as taxicabs whizzed by them on busy urban streets. Edwards is hardly the first black cop to be victimized by fellow officers. In recent years, there have been more than a few cases where white cops stopped, harassed, attempted to arrest, even arrested and shot off-duty black cops.
The wishful thinking was that Obama's election buried, once and for all, negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat it posed to the safety and well-being of black males. But it did no such thing.
Immediately following Obama's election and months after police officer shot Edwards, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty, crime and blacks remain frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceives those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race, poverty and crime are firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it's virtually impossible to root out. That's hardly new either.
In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the connection between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope-peddling gang bangers.
The bulging numbers of blacks in America's jails and prisons seem to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face. It doesn't much matter how prominent, wealthy or celebrated the black person is. The overkill feeding frenzy on the criminal hijinks of now-shunned black celebritiesformer New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress and O.J. Simpson, for instancefurther implants the negative image of black males. None of them are poor, downtrodden, ghetto-dwelling young, black males.
There was, however, a mild surprise in the Penn State study. It found that even when blacks didn't commit a specific crime, whites still misidentified the perpetrator as being African American.
This result fascinated university researchers. Five years later they wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as Obama's political star rose. Researchers found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn't commit them. That's especially important to say, since the fall-back line on racial stereotypes is that to link race and crime is not stereotyping because blacks commit the majority of street crimes.
One explanation for this is that Obama's victory was more a personal triumph. It did not radically remap racial perceptions, let alone put an end to racial stereotyping. Another is that much of the public still sees crime and poverty through a narrow racial lens.
An early newspaper account of the Edwards' shooting minced no words. It said that the white cop mistook Edwards for a thug. The brazen inference was that Edwards' clean-cut look and police badge still didn't exempt him from the "young black male equals thug" typecast. Edwards paid the price for that casting. And all Charlie Rangel was trying to say is that the casting could fit any young black man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if he's a president.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 a.m. Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on http://www.ktym.com