Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oh Please

Note the racist black cop in the foreground.

So as you may have heard, Henry Louis Gates Jr., distinguished professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, got arrested outside his home last week. And predictably this incident has given rise to mucho handwringing to the effect that, as Kanye put it on Never Let Me Down, "racism is still aliiiiiiiive!" Which it surely is. But as always the important question is how alive, and, as far as this arrest goes, whether it's actually a case of racism at all. Surely the grossest thing about these incidents, whether it's Gates or the swim club that threw the black campers out or Diallo back in the day, besides the total allergy to facts evinced by the folks who hype them up, is the barely concealed glee on the part of those ostensibly so upset about them that they happened in the first place. So Dayo Olopade (yep, her again), in her screamer of an interview with Dr. Gates (who happens to be the editor-in-chief of the publication for which Olopade's doing the interview, so you know she's not going to even hint at whether Dr. Gates just might share some culpability in this mess), hilariously asks the man of the moment, "Does this put to rest the idea that America is post-racial?" Now, admittedly, the idea that we're in a post-racial era isn't even so much wrong as it's, I don't know, like asking if we're in a post-weather era because for a week straight we get sun and cool breezes. As long as people think of themselves in terms of race, as black or white or what have you, how could we live in a post-racial world? Putting the whole question of how one's treated because of one's race aside. But if the idea did have any validity to it, or perhaps if Olopade, in her clumsy way, meant post-racist world, how could a single arrest, even if it were served out of the vilest bigotry, put the idea to rest? One arrest can put to rest a claim about the state of the entire nation? Um, no!

But as absurd as it sounds, it seriously feels as if that's what some people sincerely believe, to the point that they're glad this thing happened, because now that Skip Gates got arrested, we can get our heads out of the sand and admit that we still live in a racist nation. Here's Emily Bazelon, legal journalist and specialist on all matters racial: "I think that it [Gates's arrest] is obviously unfortunate and I don't want to suggest otherwise, but there is a necessary corrective lesson in this in that, I think a lot of us aspire to live in a post-racial world, it certainly would be better if racism was gone [yeah, or it might capsize your journalistic career and force you to write about boring shit like antitrust], but that's not the case necessarily. So in some ways I think it's very useful when something attention-grabbing happens to someone who has the power to command a lot of media attention, that demonstrates to us that race still DOES matter." Hurray! Race still matters! Professor Gates demonstrates it! Now if only we could retry that firefighters' case with this new compelling evidence of racism's continuing existence in American life. And of course, once you get past the ranks of the professional race agonizers and see what the amateurs are saying, you get a much more unalloyed and honest version of the glee the pros have to at least try to conceal:

I am not.

But the sadder part, at least for people like me who believe in telling the truth, is how dishonest the hype around this arrest is. If you just read the puff pieces, especially the commentaries that profess to "unpack" what this all "means," you would be left with the completely mistaken impression that some cops saw Dr. Gates walking into his house and decided that he, being black, couldn't have possibly owned a residence half as nice and must have been breaking in. Upon which they arrested him for trying to break into his own house. On the contrary. Dr. Gates's door was damaged. With the help of his bodyguard, he forced his way into his own home. A neighbor who apparently didn't recognize him called the cops and said that a man unknown to her was breaking in to the house next door. (Of course, if you're crazy you can choose to believe that his racist and/or insane neighbor thought that she'd call the cops and say that a man whom she really knew to be her neighbor was breaking into his own house.) Cops showed up, and, at least according to their report, asked him to step outside, as a woman had called and said she saw some black men breaking into the house. Gates is a black man, after all. Gates refused, asking if it was because he was "a black man in America." (Well yes, it is in the sense that someone just saw a black man breaking into a house and you're a black man sitting in that house.) He went on to assure the cops that they had "no idea" who they were "messing with." Eventually he provided ID and was able to verify that he was, in fact, the owner of the house. Unfortunately, Gates continued to call the officers racists, shout at onlookers "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA" (according to the Hispanic cop who came to assist), and, say, when he was asked to step outside, that he'd go speak to the officer's 'mama' outside. After this continued for some time, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. Now, this arrest did not have to be made, and wisely the charges have been dropped. But in the first instance, Gates wasn't "racially profiled" of anything. A neighbor who probably didn't recognize him really saw him breaking into his house, and Gates probably really did yell at the cops. Even if he didn't, there's a difference between making shit up and racial profiling. Second, though Gates may have understandably been mad about being suspected of robbing his own house, once it was explained that someone didn't recognize him and called in, did he have any call to scream, shout, and continuously accuse the cops of being racists? (In fairness, Gates claims that he couldn't have screamed or shouted because he had a severe bronchial infection a week ago. "So I couldn't have yelled." We don't believe you, you need more people.) I don't think so. If I'm in some God-forsaken part of Tennessee, where some people still believe Jews have horns growing out the back of our heads, and get questioned about the police about something I didn't do, am I going to persistently yell that it's because I'm Jewish and accuse them of bigotry? No, and I wouldn't be too surprised if I got arrested were I to do so. Nor would I chalk such an arrest up to anti-Semitism, but rather, to my stupidity in choosing to angrily accuse police officers doing their jobs of being bigots. This would seem to be common sense. Common sense for Gates, though his actions are quite excusable, but more importantly, common sense for the commentators, whose willful ignoring of the facts isn't. Unfortunately, we live in a nation where said commodity is in woefully short supply. And a nation where people clasp their hands in joy that a decent man had to sit in jail for four hours because, in their tiny heads, it proves that their ideological obsessions have some validity. How sad.


bding7 said...

They even make me show ID to get inside of Sam's Club.

When I first saw this on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, I must be honest, I laughed out loud. I think I side with TNC on this one; Gates is from a time and place where he should have known better. No more, no less. That said, the cops had no real business arresting him after he had shown them ID to prove he lived there, but always better to be safe than sorry.

Also, I live/work pretty close to the guy, so this was especially funny to me.

tray said...

They shouldn't, probably, have arrested him, but again, he wasn't arrested for breaking in; he was arrested for screaming that they were bigots umpteen times before a growing crowd. I don't even see what the time or place has to do with it. Whatever your race, cops don't like being yelled at, or being made the butt of bad mama jokes.