The arrest of Harvard's star African-American studies professor Henry Louis Gates has reignited national conversation about things like racial profiling! The important part of the conversation, however? What the best of pop culture has to say about it, naturally.
Now, the following list is definitely some of the best, but it's by no means definitive, or comprehensive: surely, there're far more examples out there that we encourage you to throw in the comments. We've put screengrabs of each example in this gallery, and videos will be on individual threads in the comments for us to break down and discuss together! Maybe President Obama, Gates, and his arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, can make cute references to each of these examples when they have a beer together later this week. Or maybe they can actually discuss some of the realities of racial profiling in America, which pop culture can sometimes get right, and sometimes: absolutely mangle.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air: In the episode "Mistaken Identity," Will and Carlton - on their way up to Palm Springs - get pulled over in a family friend's Mercedes Benz while going 2MPH looking for a freeway entrance. Because they're black, they're assumed by a cop to have stolen the car. Will tries to stonewall the cop while Carlton tries to reason with him, and of course, they end up in jail. Some singing and dancing later, Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil bail them out. The episode ends with Will castigating Carlton for not knowing better.
White Guilt Factor: 5. Funny whiteguy Andy Borowitz was the show's creator, but it had a predominately African American cast.
Black Anger Factor: 7, but it's subdued: After Carlton asks Uncle Phil if he would've pulled them over, Uncle Phil reminds him: "I wondered the same thing the first time I was pulled over." Not your typical Fresh Prince ending: Carlton sits alone in silence to ruminate with his newfound disquiet as the credits fade to black.
Accuracy: 6. Black guys in nice cars are red flags for suburban cops, but really, who would mistake Carlton for a criminal? [Answer: Who would mistake Henry Gates for a home invader?].
99 Problems by Jay-Z: The song - from his I'm Retiring-Before-I-UnRetire Black Album - was produced by Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, and one of the prominent verses is about being pulled over by police for a Jim Crow-esque speeding offense. Observe: "I...pull over to the side of the road/I heard "Son do you know why I'm stoppin' you for?"/Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low?/Do I look like a mind reader sir? I don't know../Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo'?/"Well you was doin fifty-five in a fifty-fo' "/"License and registration and step out of the car"/"Are you carryin' a weapon on you I know a lot of you are." The Mark Romanek-directed video - which showed Hov and Rubin being searched by cops - was a source of much controversy on MTV, where they ran it with a warning. It won three VMAs that year. Wikipedia-sourced trivia: Jay-Z performed the song for the White House Staff Ball, and tweaked the lyrics: "I've got 99 Problems, but a Bush ain't one."
White Guilt Factor: 3. Rick Rubin might be white, but he's about as white as anybody who looks like this can possibly be.
Black Anger Factor: 8. How many times do you think this kind of shit happened to Jay-Z in his 20s? He still keeps a pretty cool head about it.
Accuracy: 9. Rappers in nice cars getting pulled over and searched for weapons? Never.
Crash: Paul Haggis directed and co-wrote the 2004 drama about racism in modern-day L.A. with another white dude, Bobby Moresco. There're a variety of situations in the movie showing all of us exactly how racist we are, which many complained were incredibly heavy-handed and overreaching. One in specific: a prominent African American director and his wife get pulled (Terrance Howard and Thandie Newton) get pulled over by two white cops (Matt Dillion and Ryan Phillipe). Matt Dillion's character ends up molesting Thandie Newton's character and they almost shoot Terrance Howard's character dead. Via an ensemble cast and a strong campaign, the drama beat the odds and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2004, beating out Brokeback Mountain in what's widely considered to (A) prove that Hollywood would rather talk about racism than sexual orientation because there's no such thing as a gay male megastar (B) prove the Oscar voting committee to subscribe to this idea, and (C) total "bullshit."
White Guilt Factor: 9. The film was written, directed, and produced by white guys (the sole exception being Don Cheadle's producing credit). Again, the racism depicted in Crash is seen by many as way overreaching.
Black Anger Factor: 7. Has a pretty split cast, and the portrayal of said racism-in-action scenarios is, while sometimes outlandish, not impossible.
Accuracy: 8. At least some of the shit in Crash has happened somewhere, at some point. Not all of it - people don't have magical epiphanies at what utter racist dicks they've been at then end of an episode of racism when karma's reached all the way around - but definitely some of it.
"The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The 1982 rap song is often considered one of the greatest, and while there's no specific reference to racial profiling in the song, the video caused some controversy when it explicitly played it out: Flash and Posse are walking down a street when two white cops pull up to them, stop, get out, and throw them in the car. Bummer.
White Guilt Factor: Eh. 6 for the people at MTV showing it.
Black Anger Factor: 6.5, if only because they could've really had the cops rough the kids up, or have the kids do something like volunteering when the cops picked them up.
Accuracy: 5. Well, the roundup at the end of the video takes, like, fifteen seconds. I think it'd take two cops a little longer to do that. Also, I'm not sure if anything as explicit as that happened in 1981 - probably, would be my guess - but it gets docked on speed alone.
The West Wing: In the first season of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue-porn show about the inner-workings of White House staffers, a Democratic administration is trying to get an activist Latino judge - "Robert Mendoza," played by Edward James Olmos, who you might remember from Stand & Deliver - confirmed to the supreme court. Judge Mendoza goes antiquing in the northeast, and driving back down to Washington D.C., he gets pulled over for "erratic driving," asked to take a breathalizer test, and when they encounter hostility, taken to jail in front of his wife and child. The White House communications director and his deputy (played by Richard Schiff and Rob Lowe) have to go retrieve Mendoza - who has yet to tell the cops that he's a Supreme Court nominee - from police custody. Mendoza wants to make a statement of it by taking this to trial, and the White House won't let him. Mendoza ends up leaving peacefully, but not before warning Toby: "They pulled me over because I look like my name is Roberto Mendoza, and I'm coming to rob your house...and all (my son's) gonna remember from this is his Dad being handcuffed, and America's got another pissed off guy with dark skin."
White Guilt Factor: 8. It's Aaron Sorkin. You need to know anything else? Docked two White Guilt points for being consistently grandstand-y.
Black Hispanic Anger Factor: 8. Give it to Sorkin: he knew how to write this one, and Olmos delivered the lines.
Accuracy: 7. This probably hasn't happened to someone of a Supreme Court nominee's stature, while they're in the middle of being confirmed. Also, the cops escorted Mendoza back to his hotel and apologized to his kids. Psh.
Chamillionare's "Ridin'" The worst-named rapper maybe ever - or the most incredibly-named, depending on which side you fall on, here - had a slammin' hit single the summer of 2006 that more or less tore up charts. It's explicitly about racial profiling: the act of "riding dirty" would be "driving a car with something illicit in it" and those "trying to catch him (riding dirty)" would be police. Sample lyric: "Thinkin they'll catch me on the wrong well keep tryin'/Cause they denyin is racial profiling/Houston, TX/ you can check my tags/Pull me over try to check my slab/Glove compartment gotta get my cash/Cause the crooked cops try to come up fast."
White Guilt Factor: 0. Maybe 1? Honesty, I thought the song was about a sexual act for the longest time before I realized it was about racial profiling. Goes to show how much I was listening. I just thought the chorus was great.
Black Anger Factor: 6. Does Chamillionare sound that pissed? Krazie Bone - who raps the second verse of the song - also admits to having ridden "dirty" previously: "Doin a hundred while I puff on the blunt/And rollin another one up, we livin like we ain't givin a fuck/I got a revolver in my right hand, 40 oz on my lap freezing my balls.." Well, come to think of it, yes, having a 40 Oz. in your lap while driving would be difficult, if only for the discomfort it might cause to one's genitalia. Never thought of that before. Hm.
Accuracy: 10. Well, sometimes, you ride dirty, you get busted. Other times, you're not riding dirty, you don't get busted. Other times, you swerve, you get pulled over, and you get searched, but, come on, you were swerving. Other times, you don't ride dirty, but you get pulled over, because you look a certain way, and you get hassled. And that's racial profiling!