Monday, July 27

Once More Unto The Gates

SCOTT C., in yesterday's comments, explains what I thought said but didn't, which is that, having put Dr. King on a stamp, society apparently demands in return that no black man express the opinion that any portion of society still harbors, you know, the R Word. Gates is accused--and charges later dropped--of Disturbing the Peace, but it's not the disturbance which makes the "news" but its emotive content, as though he were a drunken Mel Gibson and not a man with several centuries worth of Good Reasons behind him. (Gibson, of course, faced the considerably more serious charge of operating a vehicle while under the influence, but got to use It Was The Liquor Talking as a cover for public anti- Semitism and sexism. The Professional Black Professor will receive no such consideration, as he, like the Latina judge, reveals a deep, permanent character flaw by not being a middle-class white person.) That he is "accusing" the cop, and perhaps all white officers by extension--though not the system, generally--of being a racist, and not of being a cog in institutional racism, is taken as given. And there is no distinction made, even to be rejected; by the evening the story broke Sgt. Crowley had told the papers "I am not a racist", as though that settled things, as though we shouldn't be troubled that the justice system disproportionately falls on minorities, and the poor, and especially African-Americans, so long as every (non-elected) official involved personally attests to his lack of bias, his principled egalitarianism, and his general bonhomie. And coaches Little League.

As though we shouldn't be asking ourselves what "diversity" has brought to the news room.

It's ridiculous, of course. It's ridiculous philosophically--we know, without question, that, under the Aegis or in the tenth row of the mob, people will do things they wouldn't dream of doing--let alone admit they were capable of--face to face, and it's ridiculous experientially and statistically. All we have to do is look at the prison population. Now, maybe it's racism, maybe it's class, maybe it's racism, maybe it's cultural and communications static, maybe it's racism. Whatever it is, "I'm not a racist" is not a defense.

Which--let us be scrupulously fair--Sgt. Crowley may be justified in considering himself accused of, but not in imagining this is all, or even the major, point of contention. Again, we do not presume to know what happened. We do know that Crowley works for the Cambridge PD, and like every other such force in the country, it is, we presume, acutely aware that words to the Press must be chosen carefully. Crowley--or his speechwriters--could have informed us that by temperament, and training, he is certain that race never plays a role in his professional actions. This would have answered the charges, and the presumed personal attack, without doubling down on the Race card, a tactic that answers neither.

We will learn, over the weekend, that Sgt. Crowley was not merely a veteran supervisory officer, but one who was chosen to instruct new recruits in avoiding racial profiling. And we will also learn that, as the "get" of a "sympathetic local pair of radio talk show hosts" (Why?), Crowley will say “Speaking about my mother; it’s just beyond words.”

Game, set, match, and Example #1 of why public employees, especially of the law-enforcement type, should not be out on the hustings talking off the top of their heads (if he is)? I'm old enough that this will always be Playin' the Dozens to me, and something I'll view both in its original cultural context and its later expansion into the popular culture at large. Professor Gates denies having said it:
“I don’t talk about people’s mothers … You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop, let alone with a white police officer … I think they did some historical research, and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’ ”

And by now "dozens" may also refer to the number of extra eggs this pudding has received. I always thought it was a matter of context and knowing one's audience; you could get killed for overcooking the Thanksgiving turkey, reaching for your wallet, or being gay in Montana, too. My guess is that Gates felt he was in danger of receiving an Amadou Diallo Special the way Crowley felt like he was about to be rushed.

We will also learn that Gates, despite his non-stop abuse of Sgt. Crowley, seems to have been observing something else as well Via Judith Warner again:
He very likely would not have seen what Gates was sure he saw in Crowley’s face, as the cop scanned the professor’s Harvard ID, trying to take in the fact that the man before him was not an intruder. “He’s trying to unpack a narrative … He was so sure that he had a catch,” Gates recalled to [Sirius Radio's Gayle] King. “That is when everything turned.”

That is what has not been answered, and what needs to be answered, at least so long as Crowley persists in his refusal to apologize and his willingness to keep the issue alive via Press statement and Radio appearance. Okay, you're not a racist. Why didn't you just back away? Why wasn't Gates' ID enough for you? He obviously wasn't burglarizing the house. Just checking a report, sir, sorry to've bothered you. Go back to the station house and tell everyone within earshot what an asshole Mr. Big Shot Professor is. Or wasn't that enough? Why'd you try to lure him outside, more than once? Is there anything else that's "beyond words" when you're in uniform? Questioning your masculinity, your parenting skills, your relationship with a particularly attractive K-9 officer? If so, isn't admitting it in public a bit risky? It's like showing the playground bully exactly where you're ticklish.

Gates has the right to think and say whatever he pleases, Sergeant. You, professionally at least, do not. The field isn't level, but it isn't level by design, because the one man has the right to take the other's freedom away. But the result of a spotlight shown on all this isn't an enshrinement of that (vital) distinction; it's the instantaneous reduction of the thing to a public pissing match, and one in which the underlying theme is "a black man complaining about racism must be suspected, at least, of making the whole thing up", of gaming a system that's already So Unfair to White People, instead of being someone who has a legitimate reason to see things that way, even if he's myopic about it. While the cops do not, or should not, have that privilege.

So what we meant is that it is apparently unthinkable, despite our having "moved on" about Race, that Gates' charges could be more than theoretically correct. He is, as a black man and a scholar, permitted an intimate familiarity with the history of institutionalized racism (insert recent headline-making example here), but that is supposed to end in the abstract. Stopped by the police--including in a case where most white commenters are obliged to admit they would have felt such pressure directed at them, in their own homes, to be excessive, and threatening, even if they insist they'd have remained polite--Gates is supposed to demonstrate a middle-class white attitude as the default position. Like Dr. Johnson, Dr. Gates can kick the rock--and the Press will helpfully allow he Has A Point--but he's not supposed to draw any real conclusions about it.



11 comments:

David said...

It's striking to me how this story has hinged on details that many people got wrong at first, not because they weren't reported or were reported incorrectly, but because the papers made certain assumptions of readers that the readers couldn't fulfill.

I'm not quite ready to attribute this to evil intentions on the part of media figgers, who are more likely to play it carefully until they see how it is going to break, then pile on. And they're not that clever.

I assume a marginally knowledgeable American, the one ready to tackle the complexity, maybe grow a bit in their conception of the state of things.

1. Gates is not famous enough. Many stories attempted to lede with Gates as a known, rather than unknown, figure. This confronted regular folks with their own ignorance about Professors, and forced them to cope with him as a caricature--the abrasive, outspoken academic--before he was a person. Also, isn't there a Gates who is in the Cabinet or something?

2. Harvard, which is in Cambridge. Most Americans assume Harvard is in Boston; several news stories have called Crowley a Boston cop. For many readers, another small jarring expectation that they know things which they actually don't know. Reaction: suspicion, uncertainty.

3. Gates isn't Cornel West. Even the moderately knowledgeable typical White American really only has room in their head for one person under the "look how good they are doing despite being a minority" label. One black general, one black TV executive, one Asian valedictorian (ok, ha ha, not really), one vietnamese linebacker, one contentious black Ivy League professor of Racism Studies, one god-swopped self-righteous hypocrite far-right Old White Guy Senator. We can remember every running back and wide receiver, and keep them straight without notes for our fantasy football league, but two stay clear on all those guys? no way.

If you built the story differently, you'd have completely different outcomes--one sign that the theoretically professional communicators of the press didn't do such a hot job.

Grace Nearing said...

Gates is not famous enough.

Which is why I've recused myself -- I actually knew who Gates was when the story broke. When the Yo Moma accusation appeared, my first thought was, and still is, Certainly not. Now, substitute Spike Lee for Prof. Gates, however....

map106 said...

Well, in Gates' defense, both the paper and police reports indicate that he said "YOUR momma," not "yo momma." Surely that's a point is his favor (elitist though it might be).

map106 said...

And a further "Well,..."

Having read the NYT report of the release of the original 911 call, I would say that Crowley lied through his teeth. No mention of two black men with backpacks, but a mention of two suitcases sitting on the porch.

Verification word: complies.

Wrong, I comply with nothing.

guitarist manqué said...

Some math prof out there (can't be arsed to find it now) has a book about how, with so many of us crowding the globe, previously unlikely, even impossible things have become possible.

I think 'Gatesgate' proves this.

map106 said...

That or the selection and consequent election of George W. Bush.

map106 said...

Christ, can I never respond without making a mistake. I meant "subsequent."

See, Doghouse, some of us 55-year-olds do need a dictionary and thesaurus.

map106 said...

And the answer is no, 'cause I forgot the question mark.

Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest (me)?

Brendan said...

Brilliant wielding of the machete to clear the issue to its relevant points, DR. (Not unusual or unexpected, but you still deserve to hear it from time to time.) I wish I could staple a printout of this post and the two previous ones to the foreheads of about 99.8% of everyone else I've heard opining on this episode.

Particularly the cop-worshipers.

D. Sidhe said...

Thanks, Doghouse. I keep trying to argue this point with idiots, and manage not not be anywhere near as clear and eloquent. From now on, I'm just pointing people here.

"What he said."

Linda said...

Gibson, of course, faced the considerably more serious charge of operating a vehicle while under the influence, but got to use It Was The Liquor Talking as a cover for public anti- Semitism and sexism. The Professional Black Professor will receive no such consideration, as he, like the Latina judge, reveals a deep, permanent character flaw by not being a middle-class white person.)

The real hoot is that the white person can play the drunk card when caught being a public ass, whereas if a black person tried to play that card, it could only look worse for them. Because you know how they are.