Saturday, July 25, 2009

Uppity colored people

For the rest of the Fresh Prince episode, "Mistaken Identity," click here, here and here.

Having Barack Obama as president doesn't make America colour-blind, by Patricia Williams, The Observer. Emphases mine.

During a major policy speech on healthcare, even President Obama found time to weigh in: "… I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three – what I think we know separate and apart from this incident – is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately…" Needless to say, the next morning's papers talked about Obama calling Cambridge police "stupid".

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been officially swallowed by the larger narrative of race in America. Now I love a good racial escapade as much as the next person, but this one strikes me as uniquely unfortunate both in its timing and its capacity for becoming a flashpoint for unrelated resentments.

The facts not in dispute are straightforward. Gates came home from a trip and found his front door jammed. With the help of his driver, he tried to push the door open, unsuccessfully. He then went to the back door, opened it with his key, turned off the alarm system and called Harvard's property management company to report the sticky door. Meanwhile, a passerby called the police to report that "two black males" were breaking into a house. When the police arrived, they encountered Gates in his living room. Gates provided his driving licence and his Harvard ID.

Here the stories diverge. Gates says he asked the officer to identify himself and the officer refused. The officer says that Gates was unco-operative, called him a racist and began shouting so loudly – "Your momma!" and: "You don't know who you're messing with!" according to the police report – that the noise constituted "tumultuous behaviour" and "public disorder". Gates was handcuffed and hauled off to jail for a few hours. A day later, a judge dismissed the charges, saying both sides had acted badly. Gates demanded that the arresting officer apologise; the officer demanded that Gates apologise. The Cambridge police department demanded that President Obama apologise, which he did, quite eloquently as usual. Gates took to national television to set the record straight. Al Sharpton announced his intention to march in protest. And Michael Jackson, pushed from the front pages for a hot minute, was finally able to rest in peace.

Hee. I like how any recent news story can work in a Michael Jackson reference.

But the larger backlash has quickly moved from the individual incident itself to condemnations in the stereotyped plural, concentrating on a very tight set of recurring themes: Gates is "uppity", arrogant, pseudo-educated. He should have been grateful that the police came to his house at all. Harvard was stupid for hiring him. African-American studies, the department Gates chairs, is a non-subject, only on the curriculum to keep black students from rioting. The Ivy League is run by politically correct "wusses" who don't have the courage to get rid of "undeserving" "whiners". Who could blame police officers for refusing to come to black homes or neighbourhoods if this is what they get? "Those people" have jobs a "more qualified" white person should be holding.

(Where, oh where, our fleeting "post-racial" moment of Kumbaya?)

I mentioned that timing was also a probable factor in this brouhaha. The entire week before Gates's arrest was consumed with reports of the congressional hearings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman sitting in our highest court. Hence, racial resentment had already been simmering on the shock-jock media burners. Three ultra-conservative senators in particular grilled her, day after day, using some of the most prejudiced, stereotype-laden language we've heard publicly in many a year. Despite the fact that Sotomayor graduated at the top of her class from Princeton and Yale Law School, she has been attacked as not qualified, chosen not for merit but because she's a woman or Latina. Pundits such as Pat Buchanan railed that "affirmative action is to increase diversity by discriminating against white males". Furthermore, said Buchanan, there could be nothing wrong with a court of all white men, because, after all "white men were 100% of the people who wrote the constitution, 100% of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg…"

[ . . . ]

In short, the Sotomayor hearing and the New Haven firefighters case have reignited the general American debate about affirmative action. So when the extremely distinguished Harvard university professor Henry Louis Gates was carted off in handcuffs, allegedly calling out: "This is what happens to black men in America!", there was a distinct shimmer of schadenfreude in some parts of the national psyche. The reactionary themes that had been percolating during the last few weeks came bursting to the fore: minorities are taking over! Obama is only appointing non-whites! White people are the truly oppressed! People of colour, particularly ones who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, are reverse racists.

The arrest itself is hardly the best example of either racial profiling or police-state oppression. But the discourse that has welled up in its wake reveals a public inclination that is marred by that and more.


Also, an article from 2000:

How to Hide Police Brutality: Just Call It a 'Black Thing', by Margo Hammond, The New York Observer. Emphases mine again.

When police at California's John Wayne Airport identified themselves as "members of the Airport Narcotics Security or something or other" and demanded to see his ticket, Ishmael Reed, a senior lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, complied, even though he knew he had the right to refuse. He was afraid he would be arrested and the police would plant narcotics in his briefcase so that they could make a charge. Mr. Reed explains: "Many whites believe that blacks are crazy when they accuse the police of planting evidence, yet they're the ones who are crazy, bewitched by the media, which too often serve as a kind of public relations annex for the police, creating and reinforcing the belief that American crime is black or brown, even though over 70 percent of arrests in both cities and rural areas are of whites. In fact, according to recent F.B.I. statistics, it is white adult crime that's on the increase."

[ . . . ]

Katheryn Russell puts her finger on the reason the problem of police brutality isn't a top attention-getter in this country: It's seen as a "black thing," she argues. Although more whites are arrested than blacks, there is no "white poster child of police brutality," no "white Rodney King." Most likely, she argues, that's not because there are no white victims of police assault, but rather because whites are less likely to think of an assault as a manifestation of brutality. As a result, for both blacks and whites, police brutality is considered a black problem. Even the shooting of the hammer-wielding Gidone Busch by four New York City police officers in August 1999 did not arouse much public outrage nationwide. News reports, after all, cast him as another outsider, centering on his mental illness and his religion, Orthodox Judaism, and not on his "whiteness." Minorities who complain about police abuse are treated like next-door neighbors who are having a fight, Ms. Russell believes: The rest of us don't want to get involved, and so we tell ourselves that we don't know the facts and that it's none of our business anyway. Ms. Russell argues, "These types of rationales allow us to diminish the collective harm of police brutality." Meanwhile, as Ms. Williams points out, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris-"after professing their love for Hitler, declaring their hatred for blacks, Asians and Latinos (on a public Web site no less), downloading instructions for making bombs, accumulating ingredients, assembling them under the protectively indifferent gaze (or perhaps with the assistance) of parents and neighbors, stockpiling guns and ammunition, procuring hand grenades and flak jackets, threatening the lives of classmates, killing 13 and themselves [and] wounding numerous others"-prompt a national conversation about "What went wrong?" Black males carry the stigma of "suspect," but the police are not the only ones to blame. The brutality in the term "police brutality" begins with a society willing to suspect the members of an entire race, to brand them criminals with a single look. Whereas white males are given the benefit of the doubt-victims, as Patricia Williams puts it, of "innocent profiling."


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