America's fantasy of a post-racial society was shattered on July 16,2009, when a white police officer arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, a well-respected African-American academic, in his own home. Our historical racial fissure was widened. Once again, our thoughts were plagued with tortured images of our system of racialized law enforcement: the torture of Abner Louima, the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Amadou Diallo. Predictably, Americans became further polarized, as they simultaneously blamed and defended responses to racism.
In what was perceived by some as a dramatic and unanticipated turn of events, and perceived by others as a necessary political response, on July 30, 2009, President Obama convened the "beer summit," a metaphorical mediation. President Obama invited Professor Gates and Police Sergeant James Crowley to the White House South Lawn to resolve the issues surrounding the arrest of Professor Gates by Sergeant Crowley. As Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley sat around the table drinking beer with President Obama, their discussion about race shifted from a demonizing conversation to a humanizing conversation. The two men gained insight into what had happened and began exploring what might be done to prevent this from happening again.
The beer summit's success challenges the long-held taboo proscribing the mediation of civil rights violations such as racial profiling. Civil rights activists, critical race scholars, and the benefactors of civil rights advancement have long considered the mediation of civil rights violations as a neutering of civil rights law and a muting of compelling injustice narratives. This commentary encourages civil rights purveyors to step back from such absolutes and reconsider the appropriateness of mediation in select instances of civil rights offenses. Nothing in this commentary should be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of mediation in lieu of litigation to redress civil rights violations. Rather, this is an invitation to re-examine the possibilities and reconsider mediation as one forum of choice in addressing race-based civil rights conflicts with law enforcement.
Understandably, you may react to this difficult discussion from your personal vantage point about race. After all, whether you consider racial profiling to be a ubiquitous societal problem or a societal ill of the past depends on who you are, your personal experience, your professional perspective, and your definition of the problem. In this commentary, racial profiling is broadly defined as “the practice of ‘police routinely [using] race as a negative signal that, along with an accumulation of other signals, causes an officer to react with suspicion.’” For some, the definition will be too encompassing; for others, not broad enough.
This commentary proceeds with this discussion in five parts. Part One reviews the facts surrounding Professor Gates' arrest. Part Two analyzes the transformation in the participants' conflict discourse that was used to narrate their experience before and after the beer summit. Part Three then hypothesizes why racial profiling remains so pernicious today despite rigorous legislative and judicial enforcement. Part Four offers how mediation might be used as a responsive complement to the existing legal framework. In conclusion, Part Five invites the reader to consider the possibilities that mediation offers as one forum to respond to the multi-dimensional elements of racial profiling, as it exists today.