I have a long article coming out tomorrow in Pajamas Media on the Gates matter that will look at why everyone in that little drama acted the way they did. It is my belief that in some ways, we are programmed to respond in racial situations and that it’s like that because we just can’t bring ourselves to really talk about race in a way that would start to change the dynamics between the races.
Case in point; Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic:
I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.
The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.
Coates is troubled by the attitude of his fellow citizens:
When we think about the cops, it’s scary, on one level, to conclude that a cop can basically arrest you on a whim. It’s scarier still to think that this is what Americans want, that this country is as we’ve made it. And then finally it’s even scarier to understand that no president can change that. It’s not why he’s there. He is there to pass health-reform–not make us post-racist, or post-police power, or post-whatever. Only the people can do that. And they don’t seem particularly inclined. Here is what the election of Barack Obama says about race–white people, in general, are willing to hire a black guy for the ultimate job. That’s a big step. But it isn’t any more than what it says.
Coates, a very smart, very reasoned liberal who happens to be African American. His attitude toward the police has been influenced, then, by living as a black man in America and all that implies when it comes to his experience in dealing with what historically has been the heavy handed oppression of police directed against African American males.
Is Coates programmed by his experience and by society to respond in this way? I think so - just as Gates, Crowley, and Obama were all programmed to respond the way they did.
The fact that Coates sees the American people as giving the police the green light to harass African Americans is also a programmed response. I would agree that the American people don’t seem inclined to challenge the racial divide in this country but only one who has experienced oppression first hand could lay the blame for that on some nebulous attitude on the part of citizens that arresting people “on a whim” is good and then try and connect that attitude to carrying a concealed firearm. The two issues have nothing to do with each other - unless you’ve seen the dark underbelly of racism first hand and can imagine worse.
From my PJM article:
The facts of the case are a fascinating example of how race divides America. Police, as authority figures, have a notorious history in African American communities — sometimes deserved, sometimes not. It appears from unimpeachable eyewitness accounts that in this case, despite Sgt. Crowley being an expert in how to avoid racial profiling and diversity training, the perception on the part of Professor Gates was that he was being singled out for being black.
Of course, Gates had no idea that Officer Crowley had such a stellar reputation or possessed such tolerant credentials. All he knew was his experience as a black man in America and his assumption that if he had been white, the police would not have asked for his ID.
We’ll never know if that assumption was correct. Just as we’ll never know if the anonymous woman who called the police after seeing Gates try to break into his own home would have done so if she had glimpsed a white man trying to do the same thing. We can assume the best or the worst from all involved and, within the context of our flawed understanding of each other, assure ourselves that we are correct.
The point being, all the actors in this little drama have their perception of the incident colored by what divides us. The actions of everyone were programmed by the rules under which we currently interact as white and black Americans. Gates felt his dignity attacked — an anathema to whites who can’t understand how he could fail to appreciate the police looking after his property. For his part, one might wonder how much more patient Crowley could have or should have been with Gates before arresting him. No doubt he acted professionally. But even with someone as evenhanded as Crowley apparently is, the nagging suspicion that if Gates had been white he would have somehow been treated differently is hard for many to shake. That is the trap that history has set for us and is one from which we refuse to release ourselves.
The president has been forced to backtrack so precipitously for his “stupid cops” comment that he is tripping over his Democratic friends on the Hill who are backtracking on health care reform. He is putting a bandaid on the cut by doing what we do best when confronted with our racial divide in such stark, and open terms; he is finessing the situation by setting up this little Kabuki play with Gates, Crowley, and him sitting down like drinking buddies and tossing down a few beers at the White House.
Left unsaid, as always, will be the real things that divide the races. But that’s the way it has always been in America - even with an African American as president.