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Racial Profiling Goes Deeper Than Gates Case

Harvard superstar Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home last week, apparently for yelling at a cop. The story really blew up when President Obama suggested during a televised press conference that the white officer had acted stupidly.

A lot of people call what happened to Professor Gates a typical case of racial profiling. Maybe. But, frankly, it's not the kind of case I care much about. The cases that need serious attention have such obvious, ugly racial patterns it makes your head hurt. Those cases have truly horrible consequences for the people caught up in them. Those cases almost never make the news.

I'm talking about the Phoenix-area sheriff who sweeps Latino neighborhoods and stops cars with Latino-looking drivers in search of undocumented immigrants.

Talking about how Illinois police officers ask black and Latino drivers for permission to search their cars twice as often as they ask white drivers, but find drugs and guns only half as often.

How about the hundreds of Middle Eastern and Muslim men we locked up for little or no reason after 9-11? How many were found to be connected to the attacks? Not. Even. One.

This is not subtle stuff.

Now let's talk about consequences. Professor Gates felt hassled, put out, humiliated. He was handcuffed and spent hours at the police station. None of us should go thru what he went thru. But when Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick describes his experience as "every black man's nightmare," . Governor, please! I know you're talking about how the professor felt when he was arrested. But profiling is a serious problem largely because of the ugliness that often comes after the stop, after the search, after the arrest. So the real nightmare is Rodney King's bloody, pulpy face after the LAPD beat him down. It's the fear of the police that many Latinos, including many citizens, feel right now in the wake of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids-ICE raids-that are often indiscriminate. Entire black and Latino communities live the nightmare when their young men are hauled off to prison in large numbers - not because they take or sell drugs more than young whites do - they DON'T - but simply because their communities are policed so heavily.

Listen: law enforcement is dangerous, stressful work. Police officers have to make split-second judgment calls about people and most officers in most places do a great job most of the time. But they're human, just like the rest of us, and in the United States race is one thing we habitually use to size people up. Latinos and African Americans pay a steep, steep price for that practice. That's the big story, behind the Gates story, we can't afford to miss.