Friday, July 24, 2009

the police officer, the professor, and the president

July 18, 2009 {this is a rewritten version of a post to the New York Times]

I would agree that “stupid” was in fact a stupid choice of words. That we find this startling in an American president strikes me as odd, given the amount of idiotic language and thinking we have heard from presidents over the years. Further, Mr. Obama’s job is to be president, not to be a god. One unfortunate word choice would be a pretty good record for any of us.
For me (white, female) that was his only mistake. Sure, he could have said “no comment.” But why should he? He clarified himself in the beginning, telling us that he did not know all the facts, and that he was a a friend of Professor Gates. By doing this, he told his listeners that he could be wrong, and then went on to give his best analysis under the circumstances.
He did not say that this particular officer was racially motivated. He said indeed that he had no way of knowing that. Importantly, he then said that it inevitably brought up the history of racial profiling.
History matters. It’s there, and it informs all of our actions. More than racial profiling wafts through any incident involving black and white people. Slavery, lynch mobs, the very shade of an African’-American’s skin –the possibility that a lighter-skinned black person is the descendent of a white owner’s rape –it’s there, and with all the progress our country has made, even with the election of a black president, it’s going to be there for a long time, and it is going to emerge in the actions of many white people. That certainly doesn’t mean that a white police officer should never arrest a black person. In itself, it doesn’t say that this particular white officer was wrong in this particular situation. And this is what President Obama was saying.
I felt bad, watching the speech, that the President interrupted himself with a joke--a good and telling joke, by the way--and then didn’t go back to finish his sentence. From the context, it seems clear that he was about to say that if the police got a call about a possible break-in at HIS house, he would want them to do what the police department did--send a patrol car to the house instantly, and see if a break was happening. That might have helped clear the way to an accurate hearing of the remainder of his comment.
There is no use in pretending were color-blind. I f I got into a confrontation with a black woman (II use a woman here to avoid confusion around gender issues), we are both going to be aware of the power issues at hand, of the history surrounding us both, even if the argument is about something having nothing to do with race, and even if I happen to be completely right in the situation. Her own life experiences and her racial history will affect her perceptions, even if she doesn’t want them to. My reaction will be affected by that knowledge. However it plays out, even if we both come out laughing and shaking hands, that’s there. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stand up for myself, that as a human being my experience is as valid, my rights as important, as hers. But it would be foolish for either of us, or anyone watching the confrontation or reading or hearing about it, to pretend that race wasn’t, at the very least, a possible factor in it.
Today I watched the police press conference on television. Five white men spoke, and each said that race is not a factor in what police officers do. That visual effect was incredible. No black officers spoke, though a handful was present (though god knows if I were a black cop I’d stay as far away from that conference as I could). They have their own history to defend, and I would imagine that police officers have seen a lot more situations in which someone who appears to be breaking into a house appears that way because he has in fact been breaking into a house. And maybe they would bring that knowledge to a white apparent burglar as readily as to a black one. And they don’t want to be accused of racist actions when they don’t perceive themselves acting racist. But that race history belongs to all of us, and it is ingenuous for whites to be indignant that their actions call to mind actions of many many whites over many many years.
So yes. In spite of his unfortunate choice of one word, I am glad that Obama didn’t hide in a “no comment.” This morning I watched five white men acting as though racism isn’t a reality. I am glad to have watched my black president, after months of what must have been difficult self restraint, address the reality.
How unfortunate that the Sotomeyer hearings are over. We could keep the television on and watch a bunch of white men explain the irrelevance of ethnicity to a “proud Latina woman.” Somehow I find myself flashing back nearly 20 years, to the Clarence Thomas hearings. There too a group of white men attempted to make judgements on the veracity of two African Americans—one, a woman who was talking about being sexually harrassed. This degree of visible white supremacy should remind us that racism is very far from a dead issue.
The president has now acknowledged that he should have found a better word than “stupid,” the Cambridge police have joyfully accepted that admission, the president then phoned the officer involved, and they had an amiable conversation. Then Obama invited both men to visit him at the White House and “drink some beers” together. As I work on this post now, Rachel Maddow has just reported that Professor Gates has accepted the invitation, and it seems likely that the officer too will accept.

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