James Blake and the Myth of an Unarrestable Black Man
Bill Bratton said race ‘had nothing at all to do’ with tennis star James Blake’s wrongful collaring and arrest. The numbers tell a different story.
What does a non-white person have to do for the police to leave them alone? The ready answer is that you have to be more famous than former tennis star James Blake.
Blake was leaving his Midtown Manhattan hotel to make corporate appearances at the U.S. Open when five white, plainclothes New York City police officers tackled and handcuffed him on Wednesday.
The real answer, of course, is that not being white means there is no escape from the consequences of not being white.
Among those who buy into the mythic moral righteousness of our police forces, there is a belief that people of color need only be perfect little humans to cancel out the realities of a racist society. Go to college, smile, pull up your pants, don’t smile at white women, and the prescription for transcending race goes on and on.
It seems not even James Blake—who attended Harvard, overcame scoliosis and a broken neck to become a world-class tennis player, and is now a cancer research philanthropist—can be that perfect. The numbers on incarceration make that much clear.
While Latinos and black people make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 59 percent of the U.S. male prison population. Considering that white people are this country’s majority group at 63 percent of the population, but are only 32 percent of the U.S. male prison population, there’s a choice to be made between two possible conclusions: either this country targets Latinos and black people for mass incarceration, or Latinos and black people are pathological criminals compared to this country’s heavenly white folk.
What’s striking is that given the ongoing severity of disproportionate incarceration, it seems our society is quite content believing in the imagined truth of the latter.
That idea is implicit in New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton’s response to Blake’s mistaken arrest. “Sorry,” he said. “Race has nothing at all to do with this.”
The supposed truth is that the police are just focused on arresting the criminals—who just so happen to be black and Latino far more often than not. But the numbers say race has everything to do with this.
This brings us back to the day-to-day reality of Latinos and black people living under the jackboot of a criminal justice system that is biased against them at every step. One need not even consider Blake’s NYPD moment illustrative of anything.
Maybe that one individual incident was racially motivated and maybe it wasn’t. That Bratton felt the need to dismiss the possibility sans investigation speaks to why the problem of racial profiling remains intractable: no one wants to admit the problem exists.
But it does. Now Blake is left to wonder if race did play a role in how the NYPD treated him. It’s the question most any person of color is left to wonder about after dealing with the police. No matter what their image or reputation may be.
Don’t worry about us, though, we know race has nothing to do with this. The police commissioner said so, after all.