Friday, July 24, 2009

Amended Gates Post-Mortem

Perhaps the most valuable byproduct of the Gates episode is a reminder of how racially divided we still are. With few exceptions (kudos to my colleague Will Doss), everybody had an opinion from the outset, including the President (though we learned yesterday he was only endorsing the notion that the arrest was stupid, not the racial allegation).

What is interesting is that people who weren't there, including me, decided who was telling the truth, and with few exceptions, most white people thought the white officer (who was the only guy present at the beginning) was telling the truth, and black folks mostly thought Gates was. Yesterday, a black officer who was present at the end of the episode said Gates should have been arrested. White people believed him without questioning why professionally or personally he might back up his white colleagues' story. Black people were more inclined to question his motive.

What accounts for this massive perception gap?

Whether we want to admit it, a lot of white people basically think black people cry racism over everything. I think it is used a lot. I also agree that false claims of racism could detract from our reaction when "real" racism occurs. But the funny thing is that for many of the white people who subscribe to this "don't cry wolf" philosophy, the case of REAL racism that they would be glad to decry never happens, and certainly not in a close case of he said/he said.

Many white people engage in an almost reflexive analysis to cast doubt on a claim of disparate treatment based on race. (Seriously, black folks - go up to your best friend who's white and ask him or her to name a case of race-based injustice. Some will have to go back to segregation in the 1960s).

I also think people misunderstand a subtle distinction between when something is racial and when it's racist. We are all subject to prejudices of varying degrees, and most are subconscious. The term "racism" is thrown around casually, but when I use the term, I mean an intentional use of power to subjugate. The officer in Cambridge might not have had that intent at all, but if he could have walked away from the Gates situation but instead chose to arrest a man for claiming racial profiling, well, in my opinion, there's probably a racial component to that decision.

The truth is, we'll never really know because it's almost always impossible to find a control group. Has this officer ever arrested someone else on their own porch for disorderly conduct? Has this officer arrested anybody solely for going off on him? If the answer is no, why is it so untoward to think there might be a racial component?

Now we learn that the officer's record is solid, and he has even taught sensitivity training. But this actually makes me think worse of the officer. If he can't understand Dr. Gates' reaction and diffuse it without making an unnecessary arrest, what about all the other white police officers who have excessive force complaints filed by African-Americans in their personnel files?

This won't be the last word on this subject because too many white people don't want to confront what makes black people distrustful. They just want to prove that in each case, that distrust is unwarranted.

I'm a huge fan of the The Wire, which had the most truthful handling of subconscious racial thinking I've seen. A white officer, Roland "Prezbo" Brezbylewski, was looking for a black suspect who had shot a cop in the middle of the night. He comes upon on a black man with a gun in and alley, and he shoots and kills him. It turns out to be a decorated, African-American, plain clothes police officer.

Prezbo's closest colleague and mentor is a black officer, Lester Freeman. Freeman, Prezbo's unit chief, Daniels, and detective in Prezbo's unit, all of whom are black, agree to testify at administrative hearings that Prezbo is not racist and race had nothing to do with the shooting. This lack of racial animus seems consistent with Prezbo's later career move into teaching. Prezbo turns out to one of the few truly committed people in an all-black school. In short, the people who know Prezbo best, don't see him as racist, nor does his conduct suggest it. (Admittedly, Prezbo had earlier pistol-whipped a fourteen-year-old black kid, but that was following an assault and Prezbo is described as a hot head, so the writers of the Wire make it seems unclear whether the action would Prezbo would have done the same thing to a white kid happened to a white kid).

But when he and Freeman talk about the shooting, Prezbo vacillates. He says, "I didn't shoot him because he was black. (Pause) Maybe I did. I don't know." The recognition that we don't always know what subconsciously transpires has finally come for Prezbo. Does it mean Prezbo is evil, or a racist, or did he just have a reflexive racial thought because he's the product of an information dissemination system in which he's trapped? To cure the latter issue, you have to acknowledge it exists. Racial thinking is like alcoholism. You can't get cured until you realize you have a problem, and all of us, no matter what race you are, suffer from it. The key is how we deal with it.

By the way, on May 29, 2009, life again imitated art when Omar Edwards, a 25-year-old old NYPD cop in plain clothes was shot and killed by a white officer. Was this racial thinking? What about the other cases in NYC alone? Notice how even when an officer is criminally convicted, the white higher ups in the department still maintain it wasn't anything about race?

What about Sean Bell, the groom who died in a hail of 50 bullets? What about Amadou Diallo, who was shot trying to pick up his wallet? What about Christopher Ridley, another black officer killed by a white officer in New York State?

What about the L.A.P.D. officer whose home was raided by S.W.A.T.? Was that racial thinking? Did "racial thinking" permit the officers who orchestrated the raid to "get away with it?"

What about the study that showed white police officers were more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects in a computer simulation? (Though this study seems pretty damning evidence on subconscious racial thinking, I promise you somebody white will reflexively try to debunk it or comment on this post by pointing out a flaw in the research. If you're that person, by all means have at it. We need a dialogue. But also do some introspection about why you're so invested in disproving even subconscious racial bias in every case).

What about historical evidence? I looked for hours on-line trying to find a story about a black officer who shot the unarmed white cop, and I couldn't find anything. I know somebody is going to say it's the "liberal media's selective coverage," so feel free to direct me to the conservative website that shows the black rogue cop shooting his white brethren.

What I can say for certain is that substantially more white people will say these episodes have no racial component than black people.

Welcome to the chasm of "post-racial" America.



Dave Stone said...

The reason for going back to the 1960s for racial injustice, it seems to me, is because that's when you get absolute moral clarity: firehoses, police dogs, church bombings.

More recent stuff gets more complicated. You've got stuff that pretty clearly fabricated (Tawana Brawley), and clear cases of injustice, but where those responsible get punished (Abner Louima), and cases where what actually happened is still pretty unclear (Sean Bell), and cases that are morally, ethically and legally tangled (affirmative action). (I'm not the lawyer here, but it seems to me that current case law says you're liable if you use a standard that has a disparate racial result, and you're liable if you throw out a standard that has a disparate racial result.)

Gates' case is also complex. There's a fair amount of he said / he said, but what is clear is that both Gates and the cop got angry, and said / did things that in the cool light of dispassionate rationality they would not have. Gates wouldn't have thrown the cop's mother into it; the cop would not arrested a guy on his own porch for "contempt of cop." If either party had shut up, walked away, and mumbled curses about the other over a beer later, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Chris Worden said...

Professor Stone raises excellent points, as always.

At the risk of muddying his excellent analysis, I'd offer that it is precisely (and frequently ONLY) when there is absolute moral clarity that white people see an episode through the same lens as many(though not all) African-Americans.

The fact Gates' case is a complex he said/he said is more cause for concern because it lays bare our inner inherent biases.

Dr. Gates maintained that there are lies throughout the report. Not all of it, though, as Gates now admits he made a remark about the officer's "momma." But an awful lot of white people took (and still take) as true all of the report as a starting point. I repeatedly heard or read things in the first forty-eight hours like, "Well, Dr. Gates shouldn't have x, y, and z..." without even knowing whether he admitted to them. Many white people would never conceive of even a distinguished professor as being more credible than a white officer. It would never occur to a lot of white people that a white officer might exaggerate or fabricate, a la Tawana Brawley.

Conversely, a lot of black people took what Dr. Gates said as the complete truth as a starting point when it's arguably murky about the specifics.

My point is that even if this event itself was in no way racial, how can ANYBODY say the response hasn't been largely and almost exclusively racial?

Ask yourself the question of who did you believe when you first heard the story and why. Wouldn't that tip our collective hands on what we wanted to be true, regardless of whether it actually was?

For the white folks reading this, if you generally sided with the officer from the outset, how much "a ha!" and/or "see, I told you" pleasure did you get when you learned Dr. Gates had made the "momma" remark and had been verbally abusive? Now ask yourself why you are were so invested in ensuring that everybody knows this is NOT a case of racially-motivated police action?

The legacy of this episode might just be what we learn about ourselves more than what these two men with big egos learn about America.