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Speaking of Racial Profiling

Since 9/11, American leaders have avoided talking about racial profiling, but a recent arrest of a black professor near his office is putting it back on the agenda.
 
 
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On Oct. 25, 2005, at 11 p.m., an Africana Studies professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU), Dr. Antwi Akom, 39, came back to the Ethnic Studies building to pick up a book for a lecture. According to a police report, Akom got the book and as he was leaving, a scuffle ensued between Akom and a guard, who then called for backup. Akom was charged with assault and resisting arrest, handcuffed and jailed.

Akom was released after spending one night in jail. He insists that he told the police he was a faculty member, and that he was never asked to show his identification card. San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris dropped the charges against Akom just two days after the investigative report about the incident by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and former city attorney Louise Renne was released on March 13.

On March 22, a crowd of nearly 300 protesters stood outside of the Ethnic Studies building at San Francisco State -- most of them students -- waiting for the walkout, in honor of Akom, to begin. Though the charges have been dropped, many believe that university leadership has been lackluster in handling alleged systemic racial profiling incidents involving campus police.

Some in the racially diverse crowd wore shirts that read, "Danger: educated person of color." Another sign read, "No Administrative Reprisal Again, Professor Akom."

A panel of department chairs, faculty and lawyers addressed emailed statements made by SFSU President Robert Corrigan regarding the incident. His email to faculty and staff insisted that university administrators will decide if further disciplinary action against Dr. Akom is in order.

On the basis of the California Faculty Association's (CFA) Collective Bargaining Agreement, Akom could experience suspension, demotion and even dismissal from his teaching position at the university. A discussion of the investigative report has was put the agenda for the Academic Senate meeting on March 28 of university faculty and administrators.

The panelists at the walkout alleged that race was a primary motivating factor behind Akom's arrest and felt Corrigan's statements were made to dismiss the possibility that racial profiling exists at San Francisco State altogether.

"It seems obvious to everyone that this was racial profiling," CFA Vice President Lillian Taiz said, followed by cheers from the crowd. "As a leader he (Corrigan) needs to look into the problem that exploded on this campus and he needs to face up to the problem and address it systemically."

Like Taiz, many others have alleged racial profiling practices as the cause of the incident. However, the report by Brown and Renne says that no racial profiling took place and concluded that Akom was the aggressor in the Oct. 25 incident.

In November 2005, Corrigan hired Brown and Renne to conduct an independent investigation of the Oct. 25 incident. But some insist that Akom's arrest and the report's conclusions are just more evidence that racial profiling has been institutionalized in the United States, despite the lack of conclusive statistics supporting such a notion.

"The issue we are addressing is that the report is inconclusive and highly flawed," said Akom's colleague Matthew Shenoda, a professor of Ethnic Studies, just before the walkout began. Shenoda finds the manner in which the university has used the report to shun one of its own professors troubling.

A mass email, sent by Corrigan's office to San Francisco State students and staff in November 2005 insisted the investigation would look at Akom's incident and other similar cases in hopes of identifying problematic trends in campus police conduct. There are some that believe Corrigan had other motivations for outsourcing the investigation.

"He was trying to influence the district attorney's decision of dropping the (criminal) charges," said San Francisco public defender Matt Gonzalez, during the walkout. Gonzalez also suggested that foul play was involved in Corrigan's handling of the investigation.

National statistics on racial profiling are inconclusive of whether racial profiling is a common practice even in traffic stops. However, the statistics do show that blacks are stopped more often than people of any other race, which many believe is evidence that racial profiling exists.

According to available U.S. Department of Justice data, the bureau of justice statistics reported that in 1999, 12.3 percent of drivers stopped by police in the United States were black. In that same year, 10.4 percent of drivers stopped by police were white. For drivers stopped more than once, 3 percent were black while 2.1 percent were white. The data study did not conclude that race had anything to do with why the drivers were stopped, white or black.

By the end of the walkout demonstration, participants -- professors, students and activists -- had expressed their desire for the university administration to hold itself accountable for its errors in dealing with Dr. Akom's incident. They questioned what this incident says about the racial climate for people of color on campus. Others questioned what the incident says about racial profiling in America when a black man walking to his office with an armful of books is deemed suspicious.

Many students were happy to see a large representation of the campus community stand in solidarity for one of its own. "I was in Akom's class when the incident happened," said Ashonti Ford, a freshman broadcasting major. "Everyone said exactly what needed to be said, and I'm glad our views are being seen."

Despite being exonerated, Akom has not filed a lawsuit. There is no word yet on whether or not he will.

Aaron Morrison is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.