Thursday, July 30, 2009

Obama and Gates: Two Unlikely "Race Men"

A week ago, the news circuit was ablaze over the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, a black man who teaches in the school's African and African American Studies department. Cambridge police arrested Gates after a neighbor called 911 to report a possible, though uncertain, burglary at his home. It turns out that Gates had to enter his home forcibly due to a malfunctioning lock on his front door. Despite identifying himself as the lawful occupant of the house, police initially did not believe him and subjected him to great scrutiny. After Gates protested his treatment, Officer James Crowley arrested him for "disorderly conduct."

Crowley said that he acted responsibly because the 911 caller said a "black man" was attempting to break into the home and that he only arrested Gates after he started behaving badly. The 911 tape, however, does not comport with the officer's description, and the caller has come forward to deny making a racial identification.

The District Attorney subsequently dropped the charge against Gates "in the interest of justice." Also, in a joint statement, the city and police department described the incident as "regrettable and unfortunate."

Two Unlikely Race Men
The arrest of Gates has led to a national conversation about race. Many commentators believe that race shaped the outcome of the scenario and that the arrest was another example of racial profiling. Others, however, dismissed this narrative and argued that police did nothing wrong when they responded to the 911 call or when they arrested Gates.

Upon reading some of the early articles regarding Gates' arrest, I felt that much of the analysis suggested that Gates -- an elite professor -- sustained an even greater injury from alleged racial profiling than poor and middle-class blacks who could inevitably detail numerous encounters they have experienced with police officers. I have discussed several of my own encounters with colleagues since the Gates incident. Being a law professor, however, does not make those moments worse. In fact, I probably escaped a lot of injury because I am both a lawyer and professor.

Although the incident has led to commentary regarding race, Gates is an unlikely symbol of racial protest. While Gates teaches in a race studies program, his work has focused much more on examining the historical aspects of black art, rather than examining issues of racial inequality and injustice (Note: I recognize that black artists have often focused on racial inequality). Gates shies away from controversial and socially damning commentary, which undoubtedly makes him attractive to faculty members at the numerous elite institutions where he has taught.

Many black men, most recently Colin Powell, have argued that they have learned to become extraordinarily humble in the presence of police in order to avoid an arrest -- or even worse outcomes. Although I believe that the First Amendment gives all of us the right to harangue cops, the Constitution has failed to prevent many angry cops from engaging in abusive and racially discriminatory behavior. Many whites report that they too submit to cops, but for black men, humility can mean life or death. It does not carry such stark choices for whites.

During a press conference on health care last week, a reporter asked Obama to comment on the arrest of Gates. In response, Obama said Crowley acted "stupidly." While I would not have chosen that word to describe Crowley's behavior (I can never imagine a situation requiring that I turn "stupid" into an adverb), the president's conclusion was not beyond the realm of reasonable commentary.

In fact, Obama was somewhat guarded, given the circumstances. The police arrested Gates after responding to a call that suggested someone could have been burglarizing his own home. Gates was arrested for protesting his treatment by the cops too zealously. But "protesting" police behavior is not a crime. Indeed, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has placed severe limits on the state's ability to enforce the "disorderly conduct" statute, given the First Amendment issues it implicates. Furthermore, the city and police department described the arrest as "regrettable and unfortunate," which suggests that it was not a reasonable outcome under the circumstances. Finally, the District Attorney sought dismissal of the charge "in the interest of justice." Given these reactions and the First Amendment, one could reasonably (even if inartfully) argue that Crowley acted "stupidly."

When Obama initially discussed the Gates incident, he did not accuse Crowley of racial motivation. Instead, he spoke about race in an abstract manner, saying that "racial profiling" continues and that he had sponsored legislation in Illinois to stop the practice. Obama's tepid racial analysis mirrors his general strategy on race. President Obama has sought to invoke race in ways that are ceremonial (e.g., celebrating MLK's birthday) or abstract (saying "we" all need to do better on race or that "racial profiling" still occurs). At the same time, Obama seeks to remain very distant from the thorny subject of racial politics (such as affirmative action) which causes discomfort among many whites.

During the presidential campaign, many of Obama's supporters and members of the news media (who were often indistinguishable), described him as a "post-racial" candidate. That description, however, ignores that subtle ways in which Obama used race to his advantage (e.g., emphasizing the "historic" nature of his campaign and downplaying race to comfort whites).

Despite his racial tightrope walk, Obama's comments regarding the Gates incident sparked controversy. Some commentators argued that he should not have placed blame with Crowley, arguing that Gates could have overreacted to the situation, causing his arrest. Some dismissed the relevance of race altogether. Others criticized Obama even as they openly praised racial profiling as a law enforcement tool.

Faced with criticism (which he seems to hate and want to avoid like the plague) on an issue (race) that he wants to ignore whenever possible, Obama backpedaled -- to such a degree that he invited both Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer. Both individuals accepted, and tonight, the three men will come together for some hops.

Jake Tapper of ABC News has posted some interesting information on his blog that makes the presidential happy hour even more farcical than it already is: "The president, we are told, will be drinking Bud Light, Crowley will have Blue Moon, and Gates will have Red Stripe -- Red Light and Blue." Bleh.

My Take
Gates absolutely had the right to protest the incident, and I believe that race probably factored into his arrest. Once Crowley (finally) accepted the fact that Gates was not a burglar, he should have simply left the scene. But the "uppity" Gates harangued him, which by the officer's own admission led to the arrest. That race could have influenced the officer's conduct does not make him an awful or incompetent individual. Instead, it demonstrates the subtle or unconscious operation of race, even among generally well meaning individuals.

Gender probably mattered as well. The battle between two men - one black, the other white -- over "public dignity" and power is a classic one.

Regardless of whether race was a factor, I agree that the officer acted inappropriately in arresting Gates (so ignore the race angle if it bothers you). The First Amendment permits all of us to criticize cops, especially on political issues such as racial justice. Despite this fact, the President will chug a brew with both Gates and Crowley in order to make everyone "get along" after he almost talked about race. Perhaps the trio will exchange a few manly slaps on each others' arms and share "high fives" as they laugh the regrettable and unfortunate incident right out of their hair.

Obama will likely escape the messy racial thicket that he has spent a lot of time and energy avoiding. And while his backpedaling on this issue might help him politically, it does not give serious treatment to the important issue of race in our society. Consequently, the president's behavior is regrettable and unfortunate.


gcotharn said...


Everyone who is interested in this is interested b/c of President Obama's rash and unreasonable racial assumption. We know President Obama's racial assumption was unreasonable because he announced he did not know the facts of the case. President Obama's rash racial assumption is the issue.

The rash racial assumption calls President Obama's wisdom into question: what else has President Obama rashly and unreasonably analyzed?

The rash racial assumption calls President Obama's truthfulness into question: he presented himself as post racial; yet, here, he rushes to a racial assumption. What else about himself has President Obama misrepresented to the American people?

Whatever is the truth of what was in Sgt. Crowley's heart is irrelevant. If Sgt. Crowley were Bull Connor, it would not matter b/c President Obama pre-announced that he did not know the facts, then leaped to an assumptive racial conclusion.

In your analysis, you can only see trees. You are missing the forest at which most of America is looking.

gcotharn said...

Separately, COMPLETELY SEPARATELY from the forest which most Americans find significant; now entering conversation about the specific incident (which incident is local and is much less interesting to most Americans than is the flawed reasoning and the racial agenda which Pres. Obama revealed to the nation):

yours is stinkin thinkin.

To assuage your pet belief: let's stipulate Sgt. Crowley routinely makes subconsciously racial assumptions. It is nevertheless completely possible that Sgt. Crowley's actions were exactly, by the book proper, i.e. were not improperly motivated or influenced by racism or racial assumption - conscious or otherwise.

First, you fail to understand the difficulty, in certain situations, and irregardless of race, of justifying your circumstantial presence to police. Sometimes it takes a patient couple of minutes to answer enough questions to satisfy the police. Race has nothing to do with this. Twice I have experienced this as I walked for exercise: once at a high school track, once through the streets of my neighborhood. Both times police officers decided I was a suspicious person. Both times I was patient as the police did their job in interrogating me, until they were satisfied. Both times I had to answer similar questions - hostile, probing questions - from a couple of angles of inquiry on a couple of different subjects, before the police were satisfied that I was not a criminal suspect.

Second, against Sgt. Crowley's career accomplishments, against the testimony of fellow police officers of color on the scene, against the testimony of police officers of color who have known Sgt. Crowley for years, you proffer this: Sgt. Crowley alleged said that he was told a black man had broken into the house. Darren, you are setting yourself up as smarter and wiser than career police officers who have known Sgt. Crowley and/or were at the scene and observing proceedings. You are being stupidly arrogant - you are showing little respect for the wisdom and the judgment of those police officers of color. If I showed such little respect for them, you would suspect I was displaying unconscious racism. You are letting your feelings and assumptions override the data which are available. You are filled with hubris, you are being foolish.

Third, it is reasonable for police to want Gates to step outside his house. Inside the house, Gates might have been a semi hostage who was being pressured by a gunman in hiding.

Fourth, this brings us, finally, to what constitutes disorderly conduct in Cambridge, MA; or to what ought to constitute disorderly conduct w/o violating the rights of an American citizen. Argue away at this question. But, remember that this question doesn't bear upon whether President Obama made a rash and unreasonable racial assumption: he unquestionably did. Further, assuming Sgt. Crowley was enforcing Cambridge disorderly conduct law as he understood it, then the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Cambridge law does not bear upon the question of whether or not Sgt. Crowley acted out of racial motivation or assumption.

Anonymous said...

I agree that complaining is lawful and that cops should walk away once they know a crime has not been committed. I think this is the real issue here, which has gotten pushed aside.

But it seems telling to me that you still assume that Crowley is a racist and that he was picking on Gates because he was black when there seems to be no evidence at all to show that.

And it frightens me that you see racism as something that should be routinely assumed, but can never be disproven.

Knowing your attitude and being white, I would never want to work with you or even hang out with you socially...the relationship would always be framed as: you, the empowered progressive interacting with me, the presumed racist. Not healthy, and not likely to lead to the goals we both say we want.

And that makes me quite sad, because I like your thinking and your independence on many other topics. But the automatic presumption of guilt is no prettier coming from you than from a small-town sheriff in the 50s.

If Crowley was playing out racial stereotypes, so was Gates and so are you.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I agree with anonymous- complaining is lawful, and it shoudn't get you arrested, but it DOES. I don't know anybody who could have talked to an officer the way Gates did and not been arrested. I have a girlfriend (white) who talked that way to cops and ended up being beaten for it.
Everybody I know knows to be deferential to cops.
I think you are grossly unaware of just how true this for white people as well as blacks, and you seem unable to absorb this information.

Incidentally, unlike Crowley, we do have evidence that Gates has previously framed things in a racist fashion- his college application to Yale used a racial slur about 'whitey' sitting in judgment of him for one example. If there were evidence that Crowley had used a corresponding racial slur about blacks, would you be so quick to overlook it?

There is plenty of evidence that Gates is a bigot, but I am still waiting for any such evidence for Crowley- other than the fact that he did what most cops will do to just about anybody hollering at them and calling them names- arrested him.

How would Crowley, or anybody, go about disproving a charge of racism?

Anonymous said...

How would Crowley, or anybody, go about disproving a charge of racism?

The scary answer is that you can't, which is why it's so useful in silencing people whose ideas you disagree with...and why why Prof Hutchinson won't give an answer.

I'm afraid my respect for him has gone down quite a bit.

Jack said...

What I can't understand about all of this is why Professor Gates would berate someone who is trying to protect his house?

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