[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/07/23/officer.gates.arrest/art.gates.cnn.jpg caption="Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested after a reported break-in."]
Sherrilyn A. Ifill
In an interview with The Root after the ordeal of his arrest in his home in Cambridge, this week Harvard professor (and The Root’s editor-in-chief) Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. announced his intention to make a PBS special about race and the criminal justice system. It would bring welcome attention to an important and still underreported issue.
Although Gates’ experience has been described as racial profiling, the problem of race and the criminal justice system is more complex. It includes police brutality (including the increasing and sometimes deadly use of Tasers), disparate sentencing, poor prison conditions, harsh and often racially disparate sentencing, and a range of barriers to the reintegration of ex-offenders. Any one of these issues would benefit from a thoughtful PBS special, especially one with the scholarly imprimatur of a Gates production
Gates has developed something of a franchise on PBS, particularly his specials on genealogy. In these programs, Gates and his research team have meticulously traced the lineage of famous black people from Oprah to Chris Rock to Quincy Jones. The segments in which Gates shares the fruit of his research with his subjects is always emotionally wrenching. The stories of the slaves, freedmen, teachers and soldiers who struggled and somehow made it through, reduce his rich and famous subjects to moments of speechlessness and often tears. In this sense, we learn about African-American history through the eyes of exceptional and successful African Americans. We share with them a kind of personal journey into their own family history.
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