by Michael K. Smith
"You cannot escape the pathology of a country in which you're born."
----- James Baldwin, 1970
"The American idea of progress is how fast I become white."
-----James Baldwin, 1979
The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for "disorderly conduct" in his own home by a member of the Cambridge police department demonstrates that the United States has not relinquished its mission to be a "white" country.
Gates was returning from a three-week visit to China with his daughter when the unfortunate incident occurred. Arriving home, he discovered that his front door was jammed. He went around the house and entered by the kitchen door, then tried with the help of his chauffeur to unjam the front door. Meanwhile, a white neighbor witnessing two black men attempting to force the front door open phoned the police saying that an illegal break-in appeared to be in progress.
The responsibility for determining whether this was in fact the case fell to the Cambridge police. Officer James Crowley, who arrested Gates, does not claim to have been in doubt that Gates was the legal occupant of the house when he arrested him. He just didn't like the volley of fury Gates directed at him (Gates demanded his badge number so he could file a complaint), and his refusal to calm down when he discovered he was being suspected of criminal conduct. Crowley feels that his arrest of Gates was entirely appropriate (though the charge was quickly withdrawn) and that he has nothing to apologize for. Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas says that Crowley is an exemplary officer and acted consistent with his law enforcement training. In fact, Crowley is so well regarded that he reportedly leads trainings of his fellow officers on the sensitive issue of racial profiling.
So when President Obama weighed in with the opinion that the Cambridge police department had "acted stupidly" in arresting a 58-year-old man with a cane in his own home, Crowley took it personally, criticizing Obama for intervening in a "local issue" and attributing the president's opinion to the fact that he was a personal friend of Gates. Policemen throughout the country reacted similarly and rallied to Crowley's side. David J. Holway, national president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers wrote Obama a letter demanding an apology, accusing the president of having exercised "poor judgment" and "indicted all members of the Cambridge police department and public safety officers across the country."
At the simplest level we can attribute the incident to a clash of deference expectations. Officer Crowley expected the deference that police feel they are entitled to for "putting their lives on the line" for the benefit of public order and safety, and was shocked at Gates's references to his "mama" and other vulgar expressions he found grossly unsuited to an elite college professor. Gates expected the deference owed to the rightful occupant of the home and was infuriated to discover he was suspected of being a criminal instead. Crowley had a gun, so force won out.
The extreme sensitivity displayed by the police is revealing. Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas says his entire department was "deeply pained" at Obama's criticism, since Crowley had done nothing wrong, merely come upon "a crime in progress" and then had to work his way through it. But of course there was no crime in progress, which is precisely why Gates was angry, and why he had a right to be angry. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Crowley, Haas, or police in general understand this. And while the police may deny it, a white man in Gates's position would be far less likely to be a criminal suspect, though it is true that were he such a suspect he would also be far less likely to take it personally, as Gates did. But this is because white men are treated - not just by the police, but by everyone - as individuals, not as representatives of a race struggling to evolve from savagery to civilization. In other words, a white man could dismiss the incident as an amusing quirk of fate, because it would have no negative repercussions for whites in general, whereas no sane black person could possibly do this, because the racial stereotyping giving rise to it reinforces the perception of blacks as congenitally criminal.
In any event, one suspects that the Cambridge police are at least as pained that Gates was famous enough to make them look ridiculous as they are at Obama's opinion of their conduct. Had Gates been an ordinary black man, he would still be up on charges and the nation never would have heard of him. And this is far from a hypothetical point. Episodes like the Gates case happen all over the country on a regular basis, so officer Crowley is not correct when he characterizes the incident as a merely "local" issue. If racial stereotyping in Cambridge is similar to racial stereotyping around the country, as reason and history suggest it is, then we are dealing with a national, not a local, issue. How is it possible in 2009 that an exemplary officer in one of the most liberal areas in the country is unaware of this?
It is not difficult to surmise. The dominant culture in the U.S. teaches that racism is the product of hateful individuals whose evil motives are anachronistic in the wake of a civil rights movement, the emergence of a black middle class, and the election of a black president. This simplistic formula encourages a false belief that victory is at hand, when in fact extensive racial subordination continues to exist with no end in sight because the vast resources necessary to transform the most racially oppressed sectors of American society have never been allocated for that purpose, but are instead earmarked for the national security state. This reflects the priority of those who rule the country: war in defense of an international class structure that thrives on class and racial exploitation. Neither form of oppression is profoundly affected by the existence of a black U.S. president and neither will disappear anytime soon. And neither will ever disappear in the absence of a mass multicultural coalition of considerable political sophistication determined to dismantle the permanent war economy and establish a genuinely egalitarian society.
And like it or not, police will have to take part in such a movement, jettisoning the shield of professionalism that currently demands their illusory political neutrality. For the plain fact is that much of the danger that police confront on the job is due to highly combustible racial and class divisions that keep tens of millions of people perpetually on edge and ready to explode at the slightest official confirmation of their subordinate status. In other words, police have an obvious interest in reducing class and racial tensions in order to achieve better work conditions for themselves, with fewer ugly altercations, lower stress, and a reduction in police fatalities. Seen in this light, police should be among the most militant champions of sweeping racial change in all of the U.S.. The fact that they are not owes much to a deeply flawed perspective of reality.
For contrary to much self-congratulatory rhetoric that America has moved - or shortly will move - beyond racism, a fear of "niggers" persists throughout the country. Middle class families strenuously resist living in neighborhoods with more than token numbers of blacks and do everything to avoid sending their children to schools where large numbers of blacks attend. And even President Obama has not freed himself from using the vilest of racial stereotypes. Before winning the presidency he criticized young black men for "siring" children out of wedlock, a term derived from animal husbandry. Recall that Jesse Jackson was so frustrated with Obama speaking down to black people that he was heard to mutter that he'd "like to cut his (Obama's) nuts off."
Furthermore, in his campaign biography, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama criticizes not the exploitation that produces mass poverty, but the personal behaviors of the black poor. For example, he laments "too much television" on the part of black viewers, but says nothing of corporate monopoly of the public airwaves. He decries "too much consumption of poisons" by blacks (cigarettes and fast food), but fails to mention waste incinerators that spew their toxins in areas where disproportionate numbers of blacks live. He condemns "a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men," but praises Bill Clinton, whose sexual conduct insults Obama's ideals, and whose elimination of "welfare as we know it" plunged a million more American children into poverty in 1996, a disproportionate number of them black.
On the other hand, when the topic is black grievances, Obama can only weakly refer to the "bumps and bruises" and "petty slights" they must endure, not the widespread racism that brutally distorts their life chances while awarding a false sense of moral superiority to whites, who will shortly have to deal with the objections of billions of people of color around the world who see the fantasy of boundless white entitlement as akin to a death warrant for the human race.
Obama's stale admonition - discrimination shouldn't be an excuse for "failure" - can't begin to deal with the concerns of this world majority, however appealing it may be to guilty American liberals eager to pretend the ugly beast of racism has been vanquished. But until the president can shed their preoccupation with bootstrapism, stop itemizing allegedly aberrant black behaviors, and speak penetratingly about racist social policy, he shouldn't really be too surprised when black people continue to be treated with contempt.
Postscript: The facts are very much in dispute in this case. Professor Gates disputes officer Crowley's claim that he was verbally abusive. Lucia Whalen, the woman who called the police, did not identify Gates and his driver racially, and apparently did not even insist a crime was in progress. Officer Crowley wrote in his police report that she spoke to him when he arrived at the scene and identified Gates and his driver as "two black men with backpacks." Whalen says she saw suitcases, not backpacks, and only guessed that one of the two men at the house "might have been Hispanic." Moreover, she was not a neighbor, merely worked in the area (for the Harvard alumni magazine). The point remains, however, that officer Crowley should have vacated the scene as soon as he verified Gates was the legal occupant of the house.