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Majority of African Americans Say They Have Been Victims of Racial Profiling by Police

The arrest of a black professor from Harvard by a white police officer has sparked debate in the United States over relations between members of minority groups and the police. Sergeant James Crowley said the professor was belligerent.

Professor Henry Louis Gates said he was a victim of racial profiling, and was arrested for his skin color, not his actions.

U.S. President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold that office, has invited the two men to the White House for an informal meeting (Thursday) intended to ease racial tensions.

The head of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, Charles Wilson, says too often police stop, question, or arrest people based on their skin color rather than real evidence.

Wilson exclaims, "The institution of policing is and always has been inherently biased against people of color and low income, and you must accept that as a fact."

Racial profiling is the practice of using race or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a crime.

For example, statistics show black drivers are much more likely to have their cars stopped and searched than white drivers.

Scott Newman, a hotel manager in Washington, DC, says that happened to him.

Newman says, "I got pulled over by police for no reason whatsoever. I was not speeding. And they just unpacked my entire car for no reason at all looking for drugs, or something. And found nothing."

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, recalls being arrested in front of his home after a dispute with a neighbor over a parking space.

Butler claims, "When the police came out they saw a black man and as soon as they saw me it was like they wanted to arrest - they didn't even want to listen to what I had to say."

Racial profiling by police is complicated further by factors of class and cultural behavior. Newspaper Columnist Stephen Smith says while there's been progress in race relations, encounters between blacks and police remain complicated.

Smith explains, "The first thing that goes through a black person's mind is that they expect, they suspect they were racially profiled. That's just a reality of the situation."

The FBI says black men are incarcerated at roughly seven times the rate of their white counterparts. And a recent (ABC News) public opinion poll shows a majority of blacks say they do not receive equal treatment from police compared to whites. And in several states blacks have successfully won racial profiling lawsuits against police departments.

Rebecca Headon, a Staff Attorney with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) says racial profiling affected encounters in the 1960s between Civil Rights activists and white police officers. But Headon says things have improved somewhat since then.

Headon says, "There are many, many police officers with the utmost professionalism. But unfortunately there are also officers who exhibit racially biased policing who do perform racial profiling."

Retired New York State trooper Pete Rubino says policing has come a long way but a lot more improvement is needed. He says law enforcement officers are disturbed by accusations of racial profiling in the Gates case.

Rubino explains, "They're human beings, they're seeing this all over the paper - all over the news, it does affect them how they approach calls. When they respond to calls now - there's a sense of danger now for them."

The Cambridge Police Department, which arrested Professor Gates, is one of many police agencies across the country that have programs designed to help officers understand cultural differences, calm tense encounters, and navigate through negative perceptions.