Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Absurdity Of Racial Discourse In America: Stupid Is As Stupid Does

A reason -- although not the biggest reason -- that a racial gulf persists in the U.S. is the defensiveness of whites like Police Sergeant James Crowley, who is now on the record as saying that he is not a racist. (The biggest reason is that some whites are racists. As are some people of color.)

Crowley, of course, infamously let an unpleasant situation escalate into a bad one when when he confronted Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates in the act of breaking into
his Cambridge home, Gates got crosswise instead of submissive and Crowley arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge that was dropped thisfast when word of the absurdity of the collar got out.

President Obama's characterization of the affair as "stupid" summed things up nicely, while Crowley's defense that he's not a racist because he once tried to save a black man's life is . . . well, beyond stupid when you consider what the consequences might have been had he let the man die.

As it turns out, that man was Reggie Lewis, and not even the administration of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation could restart the Boston Celtics superstar's heart.

I'm inclined to give Crowley some slack because police work is dangerous. He may well not be a racist, merely a hot-headed cop, and many of us would grab onto something from their past like he did to prove that we believe that we're all brothers and sisters on the surface of the planet earth. But the fact of the matter is that by many white folks' lights, one positive gesture to a black person over a lifetime is enough to qualify as not being a racist.

I once pulled my car over on the narrow shoulder of a busy Philadelphia expressway after I spotted an African American woman and her three young children, one of them holding a black Raggedy Ann doll, standing in harm's way next to their broken-down minivan. I got them into my car and drove off the expressway to the
nearest police station where a white desk sergeant let the mother use a phone to call for help. The littlest of the three children was sitting in my lap, still clutching her doll, by the time help arrived

You see, this makes both the desk sergeant and I not racists, because he could have refused the mother a phone call or taken offense at the little girl climbing into a white man's lap. And I could have left the mother and her brood on the highway where they might have been filleted by an eighteen-wheeler, a not infrequent occurrence on the mean highways of Philadelphia.

* * * * *
It gets absurd pretty quickly, doesn't it? Yes it does, but that's nuttin' compared to the wails of outrage from white conservatives over Gatesgate.

While Obama has been unafraid to confront the broader issue of race in America, you
would have thought that he'd bent Kay Bailey Hutchinson over his Oval Office desk and not merely called the Cambridge incident for what it was. (And the president's wee walkback yesterday after he telephoned Crowley was unnecessary. The clarification, not the call.)

While none of these conservatives can be considered racists themselves (cough, cough), it is ironic -- no, make that bitterly ironic -- that they have no time to address let alone deal with racial discrimination as it applies to non-whites, including a
criminal-justice system that routinely convicts innocent African Americans, but flip out when the president defends one who happens to be especially eminent unless you're one of those conservatives, in which case Gates is an elitist who played the race card.

* * * * *
The spitstorm over Gates took me back to hands down the best speech Obama has ever given. That would be his address in Philadelphia last year in the heat of the presidential primary in which he refused to shrink from his relationship with his throwback pastor and elaborated with candor, forcefulness and eloquence about why the black church has been so important to him while stressing that it was time for America to stop licking its racial wounds:

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama said of Jeremiah Wright. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in the world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Now let's deal with health-care reform, okay?
Top photo by Christopher Evans/Boston Globe


Anonymous said...

Why don't you address the fact that Gates refuses to admit that he made mistakes in the situation as well as the cop. The cops were responding to a report of a break-in at Gates' house. When confronted Gates became belligerent and uncooperative. Had he put half of the effort into proving his identity as he did into trying to play the race card, this situation would have ended very differently, with no arrest. Since the cops weren't psychic, how were they to know who he was unless they investigated? And the cop should have used a little common sense by reasoning that this old man is probably not a burglar. Becoming unruly and uncooperative with police is not only a bad idea, white or black, but is also a violation of law. That doesn't mean Gates is a criminal, no more than not using common sense makes the cop a racist. But the simple fact is that both men made mistakes, not just the cop.

Lou said...

Anonymous said...

Was this really written on Saturday, or is that when you finally got around to posting it?

I ask because the denunciation of the line of argument that Crowley is not a racist because of the Reggie Lewis incident has been overtaken by subsequent and widely reported background on Crowley.

This is an UPDATE to a Thursday AP story:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — The white police sergeant criticized by President Barack Obama for arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Massachusetts home is a police academy expert on understanding racial profiling.

Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley has taught a class about racial profiling for five years at the Lowell Police Academy after being hand-picked for the job by former police Commissioner Ronny Watson, who is black, said Academy Director Thomas Fleming.

"I have nothing but the highest respect for him as a police officer. He is very professional and he is a good role model for the young recruits in the police academy," Fleming told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The course was co-taught by a black officer, who IIRC praised Crowley's effort and attitude.

Of course, that does not mean Crowley was not a racist, either. But what would?

And is there any chance at all that Gates was caught up in his own inner narrative about racist white cops, rather than dealing with the live cop in front of him?

Tom Maguire

Shaun Mullen said...

Mr. McGuire:

Good points all. Thank you.