Thursday, July 23, 2009

Conservatives React to Obama, Gates and Race

Last week, Cambridge, Massachusetts police arrested Henry Louis Gates, a professor at Harvard University. The police were responding to a call from Gates's neighbors who believed that someone was trying to break into his home. Police arrived and found Gates at home. Apparently, Gates had to force his way into the home because his key would not open a damaged door lock. Gates produced identification establishing his identity, but police initially refused to believe him. After Gates protested the situation, police arrested him for "disorderly conduct." The charge was subsequently dropped.

Obama's Reaction
During Wednesday's press conference, President Obama responded to a question related to the arrest. Here is a transcript of his comments:
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?

OBAMA: Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good,
right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so...

(LAUGHTER)

... it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago.

(LAUGHTER)

Here, I’d get shot.

(LAUGHTER)

But so far, so good. They’re -- they’re reporting. The police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate what happens.

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But 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’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.

And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be. All right? Thank you, everybody.
The Responses from the Right
Commentary regarding Obama's statements regarding Gates's arrest are just emerging, but many conservatives have questioned Obama's position. Here are some of the conservative responses.

William Kristol
Conservative William Kristol believes that Obama should not have "attacked" the police for behaving "stupidly":
Does [Obama] really know enough about what happened to say that? Maybe it was Professor Gates who behaved stupidly, or at least arrogantly. He is, after all, a Harvard professor. I was once a Harvard professor, and my instinct is to side with the Cambridge cops.
William A. Jacobson
Conservative blogger William A. Jacobson takes issue with Obama's description of the arrest and argues that Gates sealed his own fate with his "verbal assault" on the police:
Gates wasn't arrested for being in his own home. He was arrested after police reacted -- maybe overreacted -- to Gates' verbal assault on the police. Obama's statement did not leave open the possibility that Gates caused the problem not by being in his home, but by overreacting to police officers investigating a complaint of a burglary in progress.
American Power Blog
And the immensely conservative blog American Power defends the police activity by defending the general use of racial profiling and describing Gates as a belligerent:
[Black] dudes commit the most crimes, and profiling is perfectly legitimate as a crimefighting tool when the odds are that a certain demographic is prone to particular types of criminal activity. I frankly can understand the fears of people flying cross-continental airliners when they see Middle Eastern and Muslim passengers on board. Individuals from those groups have committed the most heinous crimes on Americans. Fear and worry when "profiling" people like that makes sense.

That may be politically incorrect. But take that away, and we're left with Henry Louis Gates' belligerence, which included the comeback, "I'll speak with your mama outside," when the policeman requested that Gates step outside.
[Editor's Note: This is way beyond "politically incorrect." Compared with this, KKK literature is "politically incorrect."]

The blog also contends that Obama's comments reflect the fact that he is a "Harvard-trained radical."

My Reaction
Obama's comments characteristically give a little to the left, right and middle in an effort to appear balanced and moderate. Obama concedes that Gates is a "friend." He states that he does not know all of the facts. He admits that the parties probably exchanged some tough words. He praises progress in United States race relations. He does not say that race motivated the police -- a charge the most whites are reluctant to believe about police. He speaks about race in an abstract fashion, detached from the question at hand, mentioning only the history of race in the United States and his work on "racial profiling" as an Illinois legislator. Finally, he puts in a good word for all of the honest cops who simply do their work without engaging in racial profiling.

It is really difficult to disagree with these comments. There is a history of racial profiling, which continues today. Also, the city and the police department officially stated that the situation was "regrettable and unfortunate." Although I suppose that rational or intelligent (as opposed to "stupid") behavior could lead to "regrettable and unfortunate" results, in this context the official statement reads like a subtly worded admission of wrongdoing (or stupidity). Furthermore, the District Attorney has declined to prosecute the case "in the interests of justice," which again suggests an admission of impropriety (not simply a generalized exercise of discretion not to prosecute).

Jacobson, however, faults Obama for not leaving open the possibility that Gates overreacted, which led to his arrest. Jacobson contends that most people would not yell at police, and that Gates sealed his own fate by not following this general pattern. First, the official statement from the city and police department counters Jacobson's effort to place blame with Gates. Furthermore, although Jacobson's description of how people react to cops is probably accurate, I take issue with the implication that cops should be able to make arrests or act out of racial biases (or both) without passionate verbal protests.

Police officers frequently arrest people who "take issue" with the officers' behavior and after the individuals demand identification, badge numbers, etc. Gates stated that he was only arrested after he demanded such information and criticized the officers. Verbal protests and requests for information, however, should not justify an arrest. The First Amendment gives people a right to question police. It also allows people to protest racism. Furthermore, the laws in many jurisdictions actually require police to disclose their badge numbers and names to individuals subject to an interrogation or arrest. When people ask for this information or simply "bad mouth" cops, this does not constitute disorderly conduct. Law enforcement officers are not above the law or criticism.

While some people might escape arrest if they remain silent in the wake of police misconduct, the law does not mandate this approach. Anger is a very natural response to racism, perceived and otherwise. And while whites have probably been arrested for protesting police conduct, I doubt that many whites have been suspected of burglarizing their own homes. This point, however, is noticeably absent in many of the critiques of Obama's statements. Being a suspect at home is aggravating enough. Being a suspect at home due to racism is infuriating. Being arrested for "disorderly conduct" after becoming infuriated and expressing this anger does not remove race from the equation. Instead, an arrest under these circumstances actually centralizes the subject of race.

13 comments:

Daniel W. Durham said...

My issue of what President Obama said was that he didn’t know all of the facts yet he issued a judgment when he said that the Cambridge police acted stupidly when Professor Gates was arrested. If he did not know all of the facts, which he said he didn’t, then he should not have stated that Cambridge police acted stupidly.

I think President Obama made an error in judgment by answering the question the way he did. He should have “it is a local matter and I don’t want to comment on it.”

I believe that was a dumb question to ask the President of the United States since it was a local matter and the vast majority of Americans have never heard of Professor Gates

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Daniel Durham: The police department described the arrest as "regrettable and unfortunate." So, what if he had said, I don't have all of the facts, but the arrest was "regrettable and unfortunate"? Would this have responded to your concern?

I am surprised that the reporter asked the question. The press conference was not on this subject.

Decidere said...

I think the mayor had a suitable neutral comment.

The officer contended he gave Gates his name and explained why he was there in his report, and then repeated his name a couple more times. Whether he really did, can't tell you. Gates reportedly wouldn't show ID at first either, and even though the cop assumed he was the owner/resident I don't think that's sufficient on checking out a breakin.

Whenever I've locked myself out of my car or house, yes, I worry that someone is going to think I'm breaking into someone else's property. I seem to recall a cop catching me by my car.

The cops should in the end have just walked away once they had determined everything was fine. Gates was likely abusive, but as long as he wasn't endangering anyone, who cares. I think Gates is naïve about how cops treat other ethnic groups, and personally I'd be happy if cops showed up within a few minutes to check on someone clearing out my house.

But in any case, Gates was breaking into his own house. I don't know specifically what cops are allowed to do when investigating a break-in - I don't think they require a warrant to enter a broken into house, I don't know what they have to assume when there's someone in a reported break-in. (Like if I'm a burglar I can just say, "It's my house, no you can't come in, no you can't see ID"?)

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: Why are you surprised at the asking of the question:

a) the stated subject, the destruction of the American health care system, had produced long harangues about the swellness of the effort and how Utopia is just one step away if we pass this nownownownownow, can't-ask-questions danger danger Will Robinson, hurry just like we did with the TARP bailouts last fall and the stimulus. In brief, the usual bunkum, the shying away from substance, the tiresome "Trust The One" motif. This led to tedium.
b) The reporter who asked the question, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago SUN-TIMES has had long experience with Our Prez and his blather. She knows, as does every white person in this nation, that Our Prez is a veritable Old Faithful on the subject of race relations, so long as he doesn't have to work at it. (The contract for his first book was supposed to be a study of race relations, which somehow morphed into a full length mirror, covered with lip prints, about His Life, with possibly a leetle help from Bill Ayers, the inept bomb maker.) Being bored, and irked with the Prez's windbaggery, she took a shot, and whaddaya know, Old Faithful erupted. This is a lesson everyone can profit from. Want to distract the Prez? Toss out something on race relations. He'll go on and on until everyone has left the room, save his reflection in the mirror, which sadly, is trapped, and must listen...and listen...and listen...

Next, Gates's intelligence. You, I think, consider Gates smart. He's on the Harvard faculty, right? Idon't agree:

a) Gates really believes that Officer Crowley was racist.
b) it follows that a racist cop will not be shy about abusing his authority to keep them "others" in line. Said abuse might be a too-vigorous frisking, a pinioning that leaves no marks but is painful etc.
c) Gates's intelligence told him all this. Yet he responded by acting in a way that guaranteed this incident would escalate. Intelligent? Or a hot tempered fool, unwilling to accept the consequences of his folly?
d) alternatively, Gates could be, like Michelle Obama or SS, intelligent with numerous chips on both shoulders. He could provoke a confrontation, gambling that his skin melanin, his Harvard professorship, and all those connections would not only get him off, but would get him an apology, along with street cred for being Persecuted by The Man. Do I have evidence of this? As much as you have that Crowley is a red-hot 200 proof racist: an examination of the evidence, and deducing from it.
e) There you have race relations in early 21st century America. The Prez's windbaggery isn't going to change anything. His nomination of SS shows where his sympathies lie. Gates's accusing Crowley of racism has marked Crowley, a mark that will stick. SS, per contra, can make "wise Latina" speeches and articles, repeatedly, and dismiss them airily in a manner that would earn the laity a perjury indictment.

Like Decidere, I have locked myself out of my car, and been questioned by a cop. This cop was of Hispanic extraction if facial appearance means anything. Politeness, prompt showing of ID, and seeing the keys in the ignition, defused this matter. The cop opened the door for me. I admit this isn't quite so tense an encounter as Gates had. But I did feel uneasy, even a bit scared until I was able to convince the cop that I was inept, not a burglar. That feeling you mention isn't a black only feeling, though blacks are more likely to experience it.

I would like to read your law review articles. I request that you put a list of them somewhere on the DJ website. I should think this would be a helpful matter to you. I can dig the articles up myself, but I need the citations.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Anonymous said...

"Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time, without benefit of all the facts before me, that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down."

--Presidential candidate Obama speaking on the Sean Bell police murder/police acquittal,. April 2008

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But 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’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

--President Obama speaking on the arrest of his friend, Professor Henry Louis Gates

My on my it’s amazing how forthright politicians can be commenting on issues during non-election years. Would incumbent-candidate Barack Obama in 2012 have dared to describe the Cambridge police as “acting stupidly?” That’s most unlikely.

Maybe if Sean Bell had been a Harvard professor his murder would have at least been viewed within the context of racial profiling by Obama, as was the arrest of Skip Gates. I think class is as much of a factor, if not more of a factor, as race, driving the President’s moral outrage on this Gates issue.

Then again if Skip Gates had been Sean Bell, no one would even be discussing his arrest. The charges would not have been dropped, and he probably would have been found guilty of disorderly conduct. Black men are convicted everyday in American for saying or doing nothing more than Skip Gates did.

During his recent trip to Ghana, the President declared: “In my country, African-Americans – including so many recent immigrants – have thrived in every sector of society.”

The President conveniently omitted any references to racial profiling during his speech in Africa, because that would have contradicted his propaganda objectives. Yes, some African Americans have thrived economically, yet despite that success any African American who has reached the top of his or her profession can be treated like common criminals due to racial profiling.

So, where is this issue on President Obama’s agenda? On the back-back-back burner sometime after 2012, or is it even on the stove plate?

Makheru Bradley

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is that he was treated much as I was when a similar situation happened. I decided to calm down. I was not arrested.

First let me say that I agree that cops often aggravate situations like this through pride and power, and I have no doubt it happens to blacks far more often. It's sad that we should have to be scared of the police when we are innocent. THAT should be addressed, but some seem determined to make this yet another racially motivated hate crime.

But I see no reason or evidence that this had a damn thing to do with his race. I see a black officer in most of the pictures of the arrest, who apparently did not see a need to intervene or mediate.

While you seem to be trying to push the officer's character out of the way as irrelevant while simultaneously assuming he is a racist, he was chosen specifically by a black police chief (who presumable did not become chief by being a bad judge of character) to do anti-racism training. This does indicate something about his attitudes toward race (or would if the situation were reversed).

So where exactly is the evidence that racism had anything to do with this?

The bottom line is that this cop's career is over, and the attacks on he and likely his family and friends are only beginning. His past does not indicate he's a racist, but he has been declared guilty by the President of the United States and the Media of the President of the United States. He will now be systematically destroyed.

Sad.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous: The ending of your post is very melodramatic. The notion that this man's career is "over" is nonsense. He is unionized, and protected by due process -- that messy thing that conservatives call a "technicality." The charges have been dismissed and the city, prosecutor and police department have issued formal statements. As an attorney, I suspect that much of this event is over, from a legal standpoint. But this won't stop the media.

Also, I think it is odd that you say blacks are probably placed in tense situations like these more often than whites, but that this does not indicate the presence of racial bias. What exactly does racial bias mean to you?

Finally, I have not assumed the officer is a racist. I do believe that race likely mattered somewhere in this situation, and I have explained that position. But this does not imply anything about the officer's broader life.

As I said in the other thread, the problem with race in the US is that people assume that being motivated by race makes someone a bloodthirsty klansman. That type of paranoid reaction makes it impossible to talk about race.

I view race and racism as a more subtle and naturalized thing. This does not mean that conscious racism no longer exists. Instead, it simply means that most of it is fairly subtle. I would much rather discuss the issue of subtle racism, than the kkk. Everyone is against the KKK. That's not even an interesting conversation.

People need to stop being defensive about race and accept the fact that individuals today -- just as in the past -- are imperfect and that they can subscribe to pernicious biases that are culturally validated yet still remain honorable individuals. The discussion can then turn to solutions, rather than indictment. I never wanted Imus to lose his job. Why on Earth would I want this cop to lose his job?

Melanie said...

For pete's sake. The man said the cops acted stupidly. And they did.

Let's say for a moment that the cops were nice as pie when they arrived and Gates was just pissed that he had to produce identification in his own house. Let's say he yelled at them. Pissing off cops should not be grounds for arrest. So the cops were stupid.

And regardless of the details of this case, we all know that this happens more to minorities than other people.

As disgusted as I am by racial profiling, I am more disgusted at how a person can't sneeze without committing a crime. Would have been nice for some of the headlines this week to be questioning overzealous policing in general.

Hershblogger said...

Barack Obama is President of the United States. Is he:

A. Simply the President, a position which would demand he not comment - without exceptionally detailed facts - about a friend's arrest;

B. The post-racial President, which imposes an even greater demand that he not use words like "stupid," likely to inflame racialists, after admitting he did not know the facts; or

C. The Black President, expected to comment without having the facts on the basis of melanin content and personal relationship?

I prefer A. I think that's actually what B means.

Inspector Clouseau said...

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.

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alterwords said...

I don't know how you put up with much of this crap Darren - crap IMHO:

Gates should have modified his response - give me a break - to be accosted by a cop at one's own home is frightening. To be accosted by a cop while black is frightening to the nth degree. I've seen a few people arrested or accosted by a cop and few of them were calm. So called "verbal assault" isn't a crime as it happens.

People who think that Gates' race had no impact on the behaviour of the cop don't understand racism. Race has an impact, period. And affects the most well-meaning cops. I guess there might be a few of those.

But you know this. I'm just feeling very peevish.

Anonymous said...

In one report, I heard that Gates' home had previously been burglarized. If this is true, any officer approaching what sounded like a second burglary *in progress* would be both just a little bit on edge and acting with extreme caution.

Everything else I've seen and heard leads me to believe that if anyone is a racist, it's Gates. By assuming some holier-than-thou attitude from the get-go (instead of being grateful his tax dollars were working effectively to keep him and his home safe), and then taking that attitude out into the street to put on some kind of blowhard show for the neighbors, I honestly don't blame the officers for arresting him for disorderly conduct.

Maybe the police were a tad "hasty', but if anything has come out of it, it's proof once again that all the degrees in the world can't confer goodness (or common sense) in a person.

As for Obama, this was none of his business and as far as I'm concerned, he can take a number and get in the "stupid" line behind Gates.

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