Post Racial America – Good Times! Learning from the Gates Arrest….

Gather ’round, children! Time for a lesson on using criminal records in employment decisions. Not a sexy, fun topic, I know, but what a freaking reminder after the arrest of Harvard professor Harold Gates Jr. the other week. Wow. That was kind of an awkward story, wasn’t it?

In case you totally missed that headline – here are your cliff notes. Harold Gates Jr. is a prominentscholarHarold gates and history professor at Harvard University. He returned home from a business trip and had to force open his jammed front door. A white woman who worked nearby called police to report a possible break-in. The police arrived to find Gates inside his home and asked him for identification, which he refused. The situation escalated and Gates ended up getting arrested, was charged with disorderly conduct and spent a few hours in custody.

Any way you cut it, this was an ugly situation. A black man suspected of breaking into his own home as reported by his own neighbor and then subsequently arrested in his own home. Ouch. Even Obama called out the police in this situation saying that they had “acted stupidly” (although later he admitted he could have calibrated his words more carefully in the controversy…). So much for post-racial America, I know. The President is calling for this to be “a teachable moment” to improve relations between minorities and police officers though… and I think we can also use this as a teachable moment for HR pros.

The reality is that this probably happens more often than you might read about or hear. Yes, in 2009, and yes, in “post-racial America.” Maybe it isn’t always a Harvard professor getting arrested… but that’s precisely what made this incident so shocking to many. And the conversation about the intricacies of race and law enforcement is not one that’s had often enough, or loudly enough. As an HR or recruiting pro though, are you connecting the dots on how and why this matters to you? If you do criminal history checks at all, then this is your problem as the concern of course boils down to racial profiling, disproportionate arrest records and disparate impact. Heavy topic, yes, but very, very important. The basics for you:

Racial Profiling: A police practice in which a person is treated as a suspect because of hisBill_gates_albuquerque or her race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. This can include the police investigating, stopping, frisking, searching or using force against a person based on such characteristics, instead of evidence of a person’s criminal behavior.

Disparate Impact: A legal theory for proving unlawful employment discrimination based on the idea that some employment decisions and practices, as a matter of statistics, have a greater impact on one group than on another.

And here’s where the EEOC stands on the matter – because of racial profiling and racial biases, certain minority groups are disproportionately arrested and therefore, their policy stance is to not consider arrests. (Also, here’s a good study by the Human Rights Watch on race and drug arrests specifically.)

The Gates incident reminds us of the very reason why arrests are a tricky, slippery slope… not a fun topic, but something we’ve gotta talk about. Teachable moments… let’s grab at them when we can.

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Jessica Lee
Jessica Lee is a VP of TA at Marriott International where she leads a team that enables the company to think big, broad and boldly about all things talent acquisition and in effect, keeps them relevant and ahead of the curve in how they attract and acquire top talent. Don't be fooled by that fancy pants title and description though, she's still an everyday HR gal in the trenches at the core. SPHR certified, a decade and a half into trench HR life... she can whip up a corrective action plan or source for your purple squirrel in a heartbeat. Talk to Jessica via EmailLinkedInTwitter or Facebook... See Jessica's riffs and rants on Fistful of Talent here...


  1. John Locke says:

    Why does this have to be a racial incident? Just because the cop is white and Gates is black? Gates acted like a jackass and cops do not and should not have to put up with that kind of behavior.
    I can gaurantee you that if Gates was white and behaved the same way, Crowley would have arrested him just the same.
    It’s getting old and tiresome when racial minorities claim discrimination for all their woes when our President is black, Gates is a very successful PhD and Harvard educated professor, Sotomayer will be a justice on the Supreme Court, etc. etc.
    Gates and Obama throwing playing the race card in this situation did no favors at all for race relations. I think it did just the opposite.

  2. e2 says:

    It is so easy to say, it happened in the past, forget it. Who cares if someone is abused, beaten or even killed – (past racial discrimination). Let’s forget it. The issue here remains that as a black older man being in your own home and asked for identification – I say, yes, Gates should have provided ID given the circumstances. In his mind – I’m sure the issue was deeper, much deeper.
    We don’t know what Gates was thinking, too good of a man, a black man, to provide ID in his own home to this police officer. We don’t know what was said by the police officer either. I will say, if an inkling of “being treated like a boy” came over the situation, I too would probably become defensive. The roots are too deep – and we can’t just say, “getting old & tiresome” on discrimination.
    The entire situation is a bit messy. As J. Lee stated “certain minority groups are disproportionately arrested” – this is fact, not fiction. When you clear this up – then we can approach future situations. Discrimination is not dead – far from it. Thank goodness for EEOC policy “… not to consider arrests”.
    Obama being elected President and being black has nothing to do with discrimination being over. Rose colored glasses are always good to look through, it is just sad when you don’t know that your entire view is with them on.

  3. Tyler Hurst says:

    Seems like a really weird topic to post on Fistful of Talent. Way to ride the popularity wave! Hope you get more hits.

  4. jessica lee says:

    @john – i think both parties, gates and the cop both, could have acted differently. but i find it a really tough argument to make that race wasn’t a factor in this situation. why would the neighbor call the police to report a possible break in? really? i think we’d all be pretty naive to think there weren’t some kind of biases at play here. because it’s hard to admit, i think we fail to admit that race is still an issue in the U.S., despite having a black president. race as an issue goes deeper than we’d like to believe since so much of it is deeply rooted, not entirely conscious, and really, really subtle… but that’s the point of having these conversations and bringing them front and center. there’s no other way.
    ps – would having a female president mean that gender equality as been achieved? just curious… not sure how having a black president signals equality. i think either show progress… but let’s say that we had a female POTUS. would that mean the wage gap would be resolved and disappear too? we’re making strides, but the issues aren’t going to be fixed overnight. it’s all way too deep seeded, i think.

  5. Kd says:

    I’m going to play the technical support role on this one. There are tons of views regarding profiling, but here’s a fact: bogus arrests don’t usually result in problems for companies regarding background checks, because they don’t result in convictions.
    Most companies DQ candidates for felonies, and look hard at misdemeanors. Arrests and pullovers that don’t result in convictions aren’t my issue in the employment realm.
    And for that, you and I should be thankful. The day I get true static on not hiring someone with felony is the day I be out of the game….

  6. For the record, the 911 caller never mentioned that the suspect was black:

  7. jessica lee says:

    @harry – yep, duly noted and i heard that in an interview with the caller earlier today… do you think she needed to say it though? what made her call in the first place? and would she ever admit to it when so much of our racial biases are hidden? just sayin’…
    it’s hard to explain the disproportionate arrest rates of minorities when the conviction rates don’t parallel them and it’s the very reason we don’t consider arrest records in employment.

  8. Donna says:

    -I don’t get it. If I had to break into my own house for some reason and the police showed up because someone had reported suspicious activity, I would be extremely grateful that my neighbors looked out for that kind of thing and that the police didn’t just look the other way. It helps reduce the number of successful break ins and generally lowers the crime rate because it becomes known that the area is being monitored. Are law enforcement officials now just supposed to take people’s word that they have a right to be where they are? Many a burglar has tried to claim that it was their residence they were in. And asking for proof is hardly “going to extremes” by the police. This would never have been a “story” if Gates would have shown his ID and thanked the officer for trying to protect his property instead of screaming about racial profiling.

  9. Kelly says:

    About a year ago we installed a new alarm system and I accidently set it off. I thought someone had broken into our home and told the alarm rep as much. When the state troopers arrived at my home, the first thing they did was question me and ask for my photo identification, which is their standard operating procedure
    I am a white female and the troopers were also white. Too bad I couldn’t claim racial discrimation and get my name in the paper!!

  10. jessica lee says:

    @donna, @kelly – in all honesty, i might have the same reaction as you if this had happened to me… gratitude for a neighbor looking out for me, or the alarm system company carrying out procedures as they did. but they thing is, i look at the situation from the perspective as an asian female, just as you look at it from the perspective of a white female.
    we don’t walk in the shoes of a black man, and we don’t walk around carrying all of the historical context of what it’s like as a black man in america – and that is a lot to carry around. add in the complexity of institutional racism and tense relations between black men and the police… and i just don’t feel like it’s so easy to dismiss the situation.
    that being said, i do thank you for swinging by and commenting. i appreciate you being part of this conversation because i don’t think we have this dialog frequently enough.

  11. Mark says:

    Donna and Kelly… I’m with you. This reminds me a lot of the movie “Crash”. We ALL need to be more aware of our tendency to assume we know the motives of other people.
    This tendency is often what complicates our interactions with others… people we know and people we simply brush by as we go about our life. This results in needless escalation, drama, and pain… to our own detriment.

  12. JM says:

    If you re-read the story you will find that after his initial reluctance, Gates did show his ID to the officer. The officer on the other hand refused to tell his name and badge number to Gates, which is actually illegal in MA. The point is, while Gates possibly could have acted with more, uh, decorum, even shouting on your own front porch should not result in arrest in this country – which those of us who have white skin believe is free and in which we have rights not to be subject to caprecious search and seizure or detained by the police without just cause…
    Some renters that live near us have repeatedly screamed at the police when the neighbors call the cops on them for excessive noise at night; to date they have never been arrested – but then, they are white.

  13. HoftheR says:

    I find that the president’s idea of turning this into a teachable moment is comical because he doesn’t seem interested in sharing what he has learned, but instead, in assuming the bully pulpit to preach to America about racial tolerance. Really? But it would be hypocritical or arrogant or both to do that wouldn’t it? Wasn’t it his willingness and Mr. Gate’s willingness to jump to some predrawn racially biased conclusions about police that escalated this local police incident to national prominence. Isn’t that the real story here. Why can’t he teach us that taking responsibility for yourself (a subject the president speaks well on) begins by admiting mistakes. Instead, he insists that he should have “calibrated his words differently.” That tells me that he is only sorry he said what he was thinking, not that his thinking needs to be adjusted. Who talks about calibrating their words excepts lawyers or others who speak mostly to have an effect rather than to communicate what they actually feel. There must be a good teachable moment in there somewhere.

  14. You bring up a great point, we need to seek the true why.
    Just as your marketing department must work with your clients , do research and not accept surface findings and rush to judgement.
    As stated great teachable moment
    Mark allen roberts

  15. Cari says:

    Everybody gets “profiled” at one time or another. It doesn’t matter what your race or gender, etc. is. It is entirely dependent on the situation. I was denied a job at a “plus-size” store because I wasn’t large enough. My husband was denied service at a convenience store in a neighborhood that is predominately African-American(he is white) and a friend of mine was “watched” at a high-end store in Atlanta (she’s a black woman with a big purse). There is always going to be some bigoted idiot out there with a chip on their shoulder…it’s unfortunate, but true.
    As far as Mr. Gates, I think he should have provided ID. He would probably been thanked for his understanding/cooperation and this would not have been a news item.
    I agree that we must each be accountable for our actions and not spread bigotry and hate, if you feel that way, do us all a favor and keep it to yourself.

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