Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gates-gate: a race to judgment?

In light of today's White House kegger between Obama, his vice president, and the principals in The Cambridge Incident, I thought I'd post a few thoughts of my own. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about or what happened up in Cambridge, you probably spend a lot of time hanging out with the Miss Teen USA contestant who had that little geography problem.)

Let's review some of the post-mortem action here. Colin Powell thinks Henry Louis Gates bears a goodly portion of the blame for the incident. Now, in saying that, by no means do I imply that all you have to do to invalidate the so-called "black perspective" on some new development is locate a single high-profile black who dissents; still, I find significance in the willingness of a man like Powell to be outspoken on the point. The other day we learned that the woman who called 911 didn't even mention race, thus refuting the "oh my God, there's a black man in my neighborhood!" overtones that surrounded this story when it broke. That news, in turn, came o
n the heels of the revelation that there was a black officer, a sergeant no less, at the scene when Gates was led away in handcuffs, and that the sergeant supports the arresting officer's account of the incident. And isn't it interesting how little media play that aspect of the case has received?

Though it's impossible to fully diagnose these things afterward
for who can say with any specificity what complex mix of emotions give life to any given event in any given moment? and who can say whether the same emotions would produce the same result on a different night?—it is clear that with each new revelationeach new factthe Gates case seems less and less an instance of racial profiling or "rousting" (as we used to call it in Brooklyn when cops would harass people for no reason other than the unwritten crime of being black in the wrong neighborhood). It begins to seem more and more like Prof. Gates himself had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, perceived the police response in the context of a certain "story line," and reacted/overreacted on that basis. Widening the lens, I hate to say it again, but this is what you get from people who are immersed in specialties like African-American Studies. (Ever see Cornel West on Bill Maher's show? The man is a sick joke, a walking cauldron of race-based animosity couched in pseudo-philosophical buzzwords and so-called "humor." I find it astonishing that this man is permitted to teach.) It is the same thing you get from people who are immersed in Women's Studies.* I dare say it is the same basic thing you get from the Aryan Brotherhood. (Giving bigotry a PhD and dressing it up in fancy suits doesn't make it more civil or less dangerous. All philosophies that sell separation and paranoia, regardless of the reason or the justification or the "history behind it," are the same at the core.) It is the same thing you may very well get from Supreme Court justices who believe there's some advantage in being a Hispanic woman, an attitude that necessarily implies there's a disadvantage in being a white man. There is no other way to interpret that belief. It is the same thing you get from anyone who defines himself or herself according to group thinking.

Now, can Gates be forgiven his knee-jerk skepticism of the police? Of course he can
on a personal basis (by which I mean, he shouldn't bring that skepticism into the classroom with him. But then he wouldn't be able to teach African-American Studies anymore, would he). It is absolutely beyond dispute that through the years, blacks as a class have not gotten a fair shake from cops as a class. And that's not just token lip service. I say that as someone who's had to put up or shut up more than once, in dangerous situations where I ended up taking sides against cops; I wrote about one such episode in a controversial piece for the New York Times Magazine. So it's probably not unreasonable for any given black dude to expect to be mistreated by the next cop he meets. Just as it's not unreasonable for Jesse Jackson to feel vaguely uneasy about the group of black kids he sees walking behind him. We all develop beliefs and intuitions based on experience and what we think we know of life.

All I'm asking for in the Gates case is that someone besides Colin Powell, ideally Gates himself, own up to it: "I thought I was being harassed. In retrospect, I may have overreacted."**

This is also what I mean about the media and the rush to judgment. It's understandable that blacks would react the way they do to such incidents...but the media are not supposed to get caught up in mob thinking, especially mob thinking that has a social agenda attached. This underscores one of the major problems with the 24/7 news cycle (and, by extension, the blogosphere). Yeah, I've heard the argument about how "we can always correct it later, even if we get it wrong at first." But by that time so much damage has been done that it's hard to undo it.
All the more so in incendiary issues like this one.

Race relations is one of those areas where that old line about how "you can't un-shoot a bullet" surely applies.

* Understand that these courses are not merely informational in nature. They are about solidarity and unity of purpose; they trade in the identity politics of whatever word or concept precedes "Studies" in the title of the curriculum. I say that on the basis of personal observations made during my decade in the academic trenches, as well as a fair amount of reading and listening I've done through the years in my role as a journalist.
** And what of the cop, Crowley? Didn't he overreact, too? I have a hard time with that one. I have to tell you, honestly, that I think the world has become far too dangerous for cops to worry too much about being civil. I'm not saying that we should give cops license to pull a Rodney King; not at all. But increasingly I think that when cops encounter lawbreakers, or even just suspected lawbreakers, they should take every possible precaution to ensure their own safety. It is altogether reasonable today to assume that a man who's clearly furious and cursing at you may in the next instant pull a gun and blow your brains out. It happens with disturbing regularity to cops in Philadelphia.


Neuroskeptic said...

bear in mind that Gates was probably sleep-deprived (flown back from China) and understandably pissed that he'd just had to smash his own door in.

And he was, let us not forget, completely in the right at least until he got abusive. It was indeed his own house.

So I don't blame him for what happened at all. I doubt any of us would have been much more polite in that situation. However, it does increasingly look like an apology is in order.

Tyro said...

I'm tempted to join you in saying that his rhetoric is overblown and unwarranted but I just finished watching an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson who is another educated, bookish black man (host of Nova ScienceNow and director of the Hayden Planetarium) who has plenty of stories of being harassed for shoplifting because the alarm went off walking out the door when a white man (the real shoplifter) walked through at the same time. Even well-dressed, educated, soft-spoken black men get harassed that I would find very foreign. And as unfortunate as it may be, racial profiling and racial harassment can easily be black-on-black, so the presence of a black officer doesn't defuse anything by itself.

But let's say that he wasn't shouting about race-based harassment but split his time shouting about mere harassment and generally insulting the police. Insulting their hair style, insulting their b.o. and insulting their fat momma. We might say he was acting like kind of a jerk but that's perfectly legal, protected speech, even when directed at cops. Instead what happens? He is arrested.

I think that says a lot about the arrogance and lawlessness of cops and yes, I think it lends credence to what Gates was saying. I don't know how much of it was racially motivated but he said that he was being unjustly treated by the police and he certainly was. I don't know if he was 100% right in everything but he landed several blows that were hidden amidst this "controversy".

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, once again I can't disagree with your argument. I see a lot of philosophical merit, and the legal precedent you cite must carry some weight. My rebuttal, if any, would take the form of an amplified version of the second footnote in my post. We live in a very dangerous world. Guns are everywhere. It may be unreasonable to have some of the expectations of cops today (i.e. in terms of restraint) that were routine in the past. I play ball with several guys who are on the PA state police. They tell me that "protocol" indicates that they are not supposed to draw their weapons unless (a) there is probable cause before-the-fact, like the knowledge that they're following a stolen vehicle, or (b) there is an obvious threat of violence from the person they stop, e.g. he makes a sudden reach for the glove compartment. And I must say, I think that in today's world, such policies are outmoded; they put cops' lives at unreasonable risk. Too many of those glove compartments contain guns. Too many people (kids in particular) have no regard for life--their own or anyone else's. Add to that the fact that all cops know that "domestic disturbance" calls are the most dangerous types except for those where they're responding to a crime in progress, and you have a climate where lots of cops going into someone's home may be very much on-edge. How do they really know what's on the other side of that door? And is a cop like Crowley supposed to know that Gates is an esteemed professor at Harvard? Should that matter anyway? And let's face it, how does the cop know that Gates belongs in that house? Maybe there was a marital break-up or something, and Gates was banned from the premises and now he's trying to force his way back in. Is the cop supposed to know all this before he decides how to handle a belligerent man?

I don't know what aim what served by arresting Gates. But I could certainly see a case for tasering the guy, based on descriptions of the atmosphere in that house.

Matt Dick said...

There's so much complexity here.

I have only two things to add to the discussion:

1) In cases like this, cops have to go to a situation and determine if a crime is in progress. They have to enter a home where they have good reason to believe a criminal is inside. That they treat the people nearby roughly for few minute while they determine if they and everyone else is safe is part of the only way to do that job well. It's crazy to think they have to do this without insulting people.

2) There is truth to the idea that you can't retract an accusation. As an example, I was just researching the history of the rock band The Who. I love their music, and one of the things I recall is the more recent legal trouble of Pete Townshend. I think we can safely say that we all assume he's a child pornographer. I certainly held that in my thumbnail sketch of the man ever since the allegations arose. Well it turns out that not only were the charges all dropped, the case was found to be largely completely meritless and hung on the fact that he'd visited a website page that did not contain child pornography, but other pages on the site did. This is a case where I don't think Townshend could possibly repair his name, I think individually people can be convinced and the overall impact will fade over time, but he has been irreparably harmed by the episode. In this case I think the cop might be in better shape, but he may be saddled with the racist label in a way that is unfair and unshakable.

For reference on the Townshend case see this article.

Dimension Skipper said...

Just to add a little levity to what will no doubt be a somewhat dark discussion. (No pun intended there... well, OK, maybe a little bit. Heh heh.)

Today's xkcd shows a fanciful reimagining of the "beer summit."

xkcd strips run MWF and always featuring a popup hover comment that often adds something to the humor. But I understand some browsers don't display the popup hover thingie, so for the sake of humor completeness here it is...

My biology grad student friends tell me that different types of alcohol don't actually have different effects. I trust their expertise, not because of the 'biology' part, but because of the 'grad student'.

As for myself and the issue at hand I really haven't paid any attention to the whole fracas and so I have formed no opinions. No, really. Honest. From what little I've heard/read I can kind of see how there is probably plenty of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation on both sides. And then once the political spin-meisters get hold of it, who can even tell what the original truth was anymore? It may be cliché, but I think it's very probable that one kind of had to be there to really get the full picture.

And when I say "be there" I mean ideally as a theoretical unseen non-participatory observer though that's impossible, of course. Well, there could be video cameras, I suppose, but even they can sometimes be screened from certain actions or not pick up dialogue clearly (if at all), especially in a heated situation where folks are talking, likely shouting, all that once. Plus they often are not rolling to capture the full lead-in, i.e. the context, to such melees.

. . .

Finally and personally, I'll just say I usually find quite a bit of gray area in these sorts of black/white controversies that occasionally reach national news status.

Steve Salerno said...

It seldom happens of late, but I find myself pretty much aligned with Matt here, especially in the case of his Point 1, which makes the argument much more succinctly and commonsensically that I did/could.

roger o'keefe said...

There is already too much second guessing of police actions. We ask these brave men and women to do an impossible job and put their lives on the line doing it, then we nitpick the specifics of every aspect of their behavior. They are human like anyone else, and there will be cases where they may not react exactly the way we would. It goes with the territory. I too go with Matt Dick on this one. If police hurt our feelings a little bit in the course of finding out what's going on and determining if we pose a threat to others, we're big boys and girls and can deal with it. It's a small price to pay for the service they deliver.

Tyro said...

Taze him? Arrest him? Shoot him? For what, pissing these guys off? Police are there to uphold our laws and if that means that they have to grin and bear it when some jerk insults them (like the rest of us do), then so be it. This was an illegal arrest plain and simple so why are you making excuses?

As for danger, two points. First, there was no danger here. No one implied Gates threatened anyone and he never acted violently. That's a red herring. He proved he was the homeowner and was inside his own house, threatening no one, harming no one, breaking no laws.

Second, policing is a less dangerous job than people (especially police!) imagine. They're meant to protect us but instead the police in the US imagine they're in a war against us. According to the US Census of Fatalities, 21.8/100,000 sheriffs and patrol officers died, compared with 24 for taxi drivers, 39.5 for farmers, and 45.5 for steel workers. Do you or your police friends think that cabbies should be free to Tase or shoot people that insult them because their job is so dangerous?

Just comparing the rates for drivers of any kind and police offers makes me very suspicious so I tried to get a breakdown of those stats. How many deaths are due to merely driving? I found a NJ site listing the line of duty deaths and it should come as no surprise that car accidents appear to make up about 50% of the fatalities in NJ. The UK does offer stats and their officers are about as likely to be injured in a slip or fall as in an assault.

To make matters even worse, because police (and their apologists) treat civilians as "the enemy" and feel free to break the law to "protect themselves", they end up harming or killing people. While 21.8/100,000 police die on the job, 100-270 people are killed by police (per 100,000 employed). There are certainly justifiable deaths but when people believe that people whose only crime is running their mouth should be physically assaulted and illegally arrested in the name of "police safety", you can bet that many of those deaths should never have happened.

The long & short of it is that Gates did nothing illegal yet he's attacked for running his mouth and being a reactionary, yet what the officers did was illegal and they're being defended and encouraged to go further.

Matt Dick said...

It seldom happens of late, but I find myself pretty much aligned with Matt here


Tyro said...


Remember that everything interesting happened after the police investigated and determined that no crime had occurred and no crime was in progress. Instead of leaving, they arrested Gates for being an uppity black man and mouthing off - perfectly legal and damaging only to their egos. Your point #1 is, I think, irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of your black readers, Steve. I disagree vehemently with the way you portray African-American Studies. That is highly unfair and prejudicial. I also think Gates-vs-Crowley is hard for anyone to diagnose from the outside. I do see that everyone has a valid point and perspective. Jut please don't diminish what blacks have gone through at the hands of police and all official governmental powers through the centuries. It's been a tough road, I can promise you. The progress we've made doesn't eliminate the pain of everything my forebears went through.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I gotta say, I think that is a very confused argument (about taxi drivers vs. police, etc). It mixes apples, oranges and lots of other fruits--and to my mind, doesn't even result in a very appetizing salad. I don't have time to comment further now, but we'll see if anyone else wants in.

Tyro said...

Ha! That is a great metaphor! Hard to feel bad when you get skewered so eloquently.

Re taxis - I figured that police spend a lot of time on the road and so, like cabbies and truck drivers, would be prone to high rates of driving-related injuries. It was an attempt to delve into the stats a little deeper, to see whether the measures they take to protect themselves at the expense of innocent people could be justified.

I'm not so good at expressing myself, especially compared to you and the other commenters. Sorry & thanks for bearing with me.

Steve Salerno said...


1. I get skewered almost daily, here on the blog and off as well.

2. Eloquence does not necessarily equal intelligence; indeed, sometimes eloquence is used as a mask for the absence of intelligence. I have often been accused of overwriting, and in retrospect, when I go back and read what I wrote, I often agree. I hope you don't think I'm being patronizing in saying this, because I don't mean to be, but you do just fine, in my opinion. I simply disagree with where you ended up in this case. I could be wrong, you could be wrong, we could all be wrong and there's an entirely different "truth" that none of us is seeing. The point is to get the ideas out there. That's the only reason I continue to run this blog.

Matt Dick said...

Tyro (and everyone),

I hope I didn't imply that I think Gates was treated with the respect he deserved. I only meant to say that judging a policeman for over-reacting when he's in the midst of an incident is much easier than it should be.

I am *very* sympathetic to a man in his own home being free to be as verbally abusive to an outsider as his imagination and energy allow. I also think it's hard to judge an older black man for holding on to anger from his past. Prof. Gates was a teenager before this country acknowledged that his urine was human enough to allow him in a public bathroom with white people. It's asking a lot of a man to put aside that level of justifiable anger. If in a weak moment he went too far, well I can certainly forgive him that.

Stever Robbins said...

I've been away for the last couple of weeks and missed 99% of this whole blow-up.

I was in Toronto for the first time. While America was erupting in hysteria over the Gates incident, I was noticing with great novelty that I walked around after midnight in a strange city and felt perfectly safe.

Once or twice a group of black men in shabby dress headed in my direction. I felt myself tense the way I would in an American city. They just smiled and in one case asked for a cigarette, and in the other case just waved hello and kept walking.

The contrast blew my mind. I never realized (a) how unconsciously on-edge I am around race and safety in America, (b) how easy it can be in the right culture for everyone just to chill out about it.

I've also since wondered if the relative lack of guns in Canada had anything to do with the attitudes. I'll leave that to the sociologists to determine.

When I returned to America to see our national media and so-called "leaders" occupied for a couple of weeks on a passing incident that is frankly trivial in the grand scheme of things, it made me wonder where the heck we're headed as a nation.

As you point out, Steve, the discourse itself at this point isn't even bringing any light, given the hasty reporting and knee-jerk cries of "racism."

Anonymous said...

I think Cornel West is a great guy: thoughtful, inspiring and genuinely Christian in his approach to life. I would love to have him as my teacher.

Steve Salerno said...

Prof. Gates was a teenager before this country acknowledged that his urine was human enough to allow him in a public bathroom with white people....

What a powerful line, Matt. No offense, but is that original to you? If so, kudos.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:25: I guess I'm mostly astonished that there is something called "African-American Studies" to begin with, and that it's openly taught in colleges. I remember when such curricula first began taking hold, in the frenetic late 60s, the justification was twofold: (1) "traditional history" doesn't sufficiently acknowledge or understand the contributions of blacks, and (2) a standard history/social studies class cannot possibly capture the "black ethos" or communicate the "black lens" on life. I found both explanations wanting then, and I find them more so now. In fact, I find (1) demeaning to blacks--sort of along the lines of the idea that you have to have a separate beauty pageant for blacks. And as an erstwhile-educator, I find (2) offensive and totally inappropriate to the goals of honest education, which should not have a "lens on life." And I see the whole thing as another ongoing obstacle to a true melting pot.

You don't show how inclusive you are by pandering to the people you're supposedly including, or by creating a separate college-within-a-college so that angry or aggrieved black scholars have a place to vent. (A separate racially identified college-within-a-college, no less.) The whole thing is as silly as if there were a "Paisan Studies" program so that the characters I grew up with in Brooklyn could have a place to hang with their buddies, greet one another with an ardent "fuggetaboutit!", compare gold chains and get a guaranteed A.

Matt Dick said...

No offense, but is that original to you? If so, kudos.

Thank you, yes it's mine.

Matt Dick said...

I guess I'm mostly astonished that there is something called "African-American Studies"...

Steve, I totally get your complaints about these departments in colleges. I think your criticisms are 100% valid.

But aside from how they've historically been treated, I don't think the concept of "women's studies" or "African American stuidies" is bad. It is often useful to trace the intellectual evolution and growth of a subculture through a wider society. If that's what these centers of study could be, I think it would be fantastic. I mean seriously, wouldn't you love to have a center dedicated to studying the truly great black authors and their distinct literary voice? I would.

The problem is that they are, as you suggest, a venue for segregating that literary tradition from the rest of society rather than seeing it's context within the larger culture. And of course you get the attendant emotional and intellectual dishonesty and mistrust that all kinds of segregation foment.

Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" is distinctly American black in voice, and it's also one of the great pieces of American literature. I think we do damage to confine it to an African American Studies department and we also don't get as much out of it if we don't allow ourselves to examine it's influence on other black writers.

Do you disagree?

Anonymous said...

We get that you "don't get" women and African-American studies, Steve--you are a white male. But what's disheartening is that you don;t try to understand what they are about and make some effort to appreciate their origins and usefulness. Well, if you don't get it, you don't get it.

Anonymous said...

Put this in baseball terms:
- Gates is like a pitcher that can only throw the high, hard stuff. And the perpetual racism charge is his knock-down pitch.

But he's no longer effective, and he's not on control of the situation. He needs a curve, slider and change-up to keep his opponents off-balance. Gates needs a different delivery, or his opponents will sit on the high-hard one and knock it out of the park.

You know it's not effective if Sharpton and Jesse Jackson won't come to your side - and everyone knew there would be lots of cameras and microphones present.

Prof. Gates, you have to change your pitch. The old one isn't effective anymore.

Elizabeth said...

So many opinions here already, my 2 cents are redundant. But still.

I too like and admire Cornel West. I think the man walks the talk (or walk, not sure how the adage goes exactly).

I also see usefulness of the African-American and women studies, which, I'm sure, does not surprise you.

For groups of people who have been persecuted, disenfranchised and put down for ages, it is almost a revelation to discover that their voices have been heard (or at least expressed) before.

As to Gates-gate, I've written about it a bit on my blog too -- I think it's largely a non-issue. Not the incident itself, but the media attention to it, which has turned it into a circus and diverted attention from more pressing, IMO, matters. Like our health "care," you know.

Two cents out.

Tyro said...

A great article in Forbes which covers the issues much better than the tv news has done. It's a longer article, but well worth the read. It starts:

Drowned out of this echo chamber has been an all-too-important (and legally controlling) aspect: the imbroglio between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley has more to do with the limits (or breadth) of the First Amendment than with race and social class.

And concludes:

There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront. And one can hardly blame the confronted citizen, especially if the citizen is doing nothing wrong when confronted by official power. This is, after all, a free country, and if "free" means anything meaningful, it means being left alone--especially in one's own home--when one is not breaking the law.


As for Professor Gates' inquiries into the officer's identity and badge number (as Gates describes the confrontation) or his tirade against the officer (as Crowley reports), the citizen was merely--even if neither kindly nor wisely--exercising his constitutional right when faced with official power. Even if Professor Gates were wearing a "Fuck You, Cambridge Police" jacket, the officer would have been obligated to leave the house without its occupant in handcuffs.

Cal said...

I'm guessing that at some point the police will carry miniature cameras that they can clip on their uniform to record incidents. Many jurisdictions, as we all know, already use dashboard cameras on police cars. (Yes, I also already know taping of police activity has been done for over 20 years in a different fashion on the Cops television show). As someone I heard recently say, there are 3 sides to every story. There is his-and-her sides (or in this case his-and-his), and then there is the "real" story.

Because how this story originally started, and where it is now are almost two completely different items. This is another reason I dislike our "Breaking News" culture on every network and the Web. The rush to be first tends to lead to incomplete information, thus misleading the true story.

I really feel sorry for the woman who made the call. She was being a Good Samaritan, and now she's going through hell. Gates and Crowley will be OK in the end; she might not.

Well, this is one case in which Steve's opinion of forgetting about race might be something to consider.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, this is one case in which Steve's opinion of forgetting about race might be something to consider.

My man, Cal! Thank you! Cal has been here a good while, but I hope newcomers realize that the only reason I discuss these issues in fairly stereotypical fashion is that such a posture was basically forced on me: My argument for a truly colorblind society was a "non-starter," as is often said in Washington of hopeless legislation; every time I voiced it, I was attacked (universally, I might add) for being (a) naive, (b) uninformed, (c) a closet bigot, or (d) all of the above and an all-around jerk. But really, why do we need race? Someone tell me why? Without race (which is a biologically unproven idea, btw; it's far more of a social construct) nothing changes except the bad stuff. People can listen to the music they listen to, root for the teams they root for, marry the people they want to marry, do every last damned thing they do now...without the divisiveness, mob thinking and paranoia.

A nation of true individuals. True Selves. What a concept!

Dimension Skipper said...

"I was attacked (universally, I might add) for being (a) naive, (b) uninformed..."—Steve

While A & B are usually cited with an implied derogatory connotation, it's my opinion that in the right context they can (sometimes should) be considered complimentary.

"This is another reason I dislike our "Breaking News" culture on every network and the Web. The rush to be first tends to lead to incomplete information, thus misleading the true story."—Cal

It's amazing to me how often some local news anchor turns to the camera and says in their serious tone that we have breaking news... and then they proceed to show live video of the location and the anchor continues on to say something to the effect of We don't really know what exactly is going on, if anybody is hurt, or the ramifications to others in the area, but as soon as we do we'll let you know. Well gee, isn't that helpful? But at least you reported it FIRST!

Yeah, it's one of my pet peeves. 99.9% of the time it's something that if they had waited 10 minutes until they actually had some hard info to report it would not make a bit of difference to anyone in the viewing audience.

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Exactly (re your points on "breaking news"). The sense of immediacy has become an end in its own right--creating for the viewer the excitement/titillation of "being live on the scene," even if we don't know what's really happening, what (if anything) it means, and/or who the key figures are. (My favorite is when local news teams quote neighbors as saying things like, "I didn't really know them that well, but I think the guy was mad at his wife, and that's why..." This is news? In crime stories in particular, as I note in my current piece for Skeptic, this sort of reportage is horrifically unfair to the principals, especially any eventual suspects/defendants.

What's more, as has often been observed of newspaper journalism, the so-called breaking news is always on page 1, in giant headlines--and the corrections that need to be made thereafter are buried on page 27, in small print.