Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Race: Always more complicated than you think it is

written by contributor Jennifer; originally posted at Mixed Race America

[Tami's note: Last week, I shared another post by Jennifer on the topic of Prof. Henry Louis Gates' arrest. Since the release of tapes of the 911 call made by Lucia Whalen, at least one commenter has asked why I have not apologized for questioning Whalen's racial bias. I cannot speak for Jennifer, but I don't think I owe Whalen an apology in this forum. My reaction to her was a reasonable one given reports from the media, Prof. Gates and, most importantly, police officer James Crowley's police report. It is Crowley who owe's quite a few apologies. Also, the fact that Whalen did not, in fact, report "two big, black men" breaking into a home, does not mean her response to Gates and his driver was not influenced by bias, as Jennifer explains below.]

[Warning: Another long and rambling post--there's just something about all these racial incidents happening that loosens the fingers on my keyboard]

It's nearing the end of July, and after perusing the list of blog entries I've written this month, I've noticed that there have been A LOT of things I blogged about this month--a lot of news items related to what seemed, to me, to be obvious instances of racism/white privilege/racial insensitivity. From items relatively innocuous as Kristof's list of best kids' books (I'd put that on the "racial insensitivity" end of the spectrum or perhaps "white privilege") to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Junior and the question of racial profiling.

I say the question of racial profiling, because there seems to be disagreement about whether this was, in fact, a case of racial profiling and, perhaps more to the point of this post, whether race played any factor in the arrest of Professor Gates.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I've already vented through a very long, very rambling, and non-educator's rant on the topic of the prevalence of race and racism in our supposedly post-racial society.

What I want to do now is to put my teacher hat back on. Because the truth is, race is always more complicated than we think it is. It's certainly much more complicated than I understand it to be, and I am someone who thinks about race A LOT. I read books about race. I read blogs about race. I talk about race, both to people who I consider to be part of the choir as well as others who probably think I am a tone deaf singer. And yet, after all this reading and thinking and writing and talking, I'm never certain that I have a handle on race and racism--because it's SO SLIPPERY.

And one of the slippery things that has just emerged is the release of the 911 tapes form Gates arrest. And the tape does not conform to the news reports that came out in the aftermath of the arrest nor the assumptions many of us made based on these reports.

I had, like many others, assumed that Lucia Whalen jumped to the racist conclusion that two black men trying to open a stuck door must be burglars and that she myopically ignored obvious evidence: the luggage, the way the men were dressed, the town car. However, the 911 tape reveals that Lucia Whalen had not just been casually walking by when she made the call--that she called on behalf of an elderly neighbor who had just moved into the neighborhood. And Whalen admits that while she didn't recognize either man, she did speculate that they may live at the residence because she mentions seeing luggage on the porch. And when pressed to identify the men--to describe their race, she says that she is unsure but believes one man to be "Hispanic"--she never described either men as African American, and according to her attorney, she never spoke directly to Officer Crowley except to identify herself as the one who placed the 911 call. In other words, she claims, through her lawyer, that she did NOT tell Crowley that she saw two black men with backpacks trying to break open the door.

I should note that Whalen also does not seem to get all the details right--she describes two "large" men--yet anyone who has seen Professor Gates would describe him as a slight man. I also don't want to absolve Whalen from her part in this whole incident. While she may not have described the two men as "black"--the fact that she didn't go over and simply ask if they needed help--that she didn't inquire about who they were; to introduce herself as someone who works for Harvard University through their magazine and to render assistance--because she, herself, says that "I don't know if they live there and just had a hard time with their key"--leaves me wondering whether unconscious bias and stereotypes of black men as criminals didn't somehow enter her mind when she placed the call on behalf of the elderly neighbor. If she works on that street, chances are she had to have a good hunch that the house was owned by Harvard University--she could have easily placed a call into the housing rental office rather than call 911 to find out who lived there and to report that there seemed to be two men breaking into the unit. Why didn't she just talk to the men, really, that's what I want to know. It was the middle of the day. She didn't have to go up on the porch, she simply could have called out from the sidewalk and offered aid/assistance, and her instincts could have then taken over if she felt anything was amiss--and she could then assuage the fears of the neighbor, perhaps even facilitating an introduction between Gates and the elderly neighbor.

Whalen's remarks and the article in The New York Times clarifies something I had been puzzled about, namely why Gates had not been troubled by Whalen calling the police--why he was not angry with her or why he did not accuse her of racial profiling him. And why all his anger seems to be (or seemed to be) directed at Crowley and the Cambridge Police. Because it's pretty damning evidence to have Whalen's tape and her statement via her lawyer claiming that she never identifies Gates or his driver as black (and for the record, Gates's driver is actually Moroccan not African American, as Gates clarifies).

So why does Crowley write in the police report that the caller identifies 2 black men on the porch with backpacks? Why does Crowley at first claim that Gates was so unruly and loud in his house that he couldn't speak to his dispatcher, yet clearly the tapes reveal that he did speak to his dispatcher and requests police backup and the presence of the Harvard police because he apparently fears for his life.

Yet things don't add up. If he was so afraid of Gates, why enter his home? Why follow him to his kitchen while Gates goes to retrieve his id? Why not just wait on the porch for Gates to show him the id and/or wait for police back-up to arrive? What could Gates possibly do in the five-minute interval it would take for Harvard police to arrive to confirm his identity? Steal something and run out the backdoor? Since Gates walks with a cane, it'd be hard for him to get very far. If Crowley is such a veteran of the police force and sensitive to racial profiling, why wouldn't he be courteous to Gates from the get-go? Why not simply wait for an invitation to come in or wait on the porch and, most importantly, what goes wrong in the communication between the dispatcher and Crowley--is he the one who ignores the comment about the luggage being on the porch or that the caller thought that one of the men could live there--that she wasn't certain this was an instance of a break-in? Why doesn't Crowley do what Gates had assumed he would do--politely introduce himself, tell him that there has been a report of a break in, and ask if Gates is the residence of the home and can produce id. Even if Gates still went ballistic, the whole incidence could have been easily defused from that point, something Crowley should have known as an instructor sensitive to issues of racial profiling.

Crowley has refused to apologize to Gates--which makes me believe that it's his pride that is at stake--that as a white police officer, someone who believes that he is sensitive to issues of race, someone who claims to have a "mixed" group of friends, that he doesn't believe he did anything worth apologizing for. And yet, if Obama has to retract the word "stupidly"--if Obama, the president of the United States and the most powerful man in our nation (at least supposedly, right) recants the remarks about the Cambridge police acting stupidly, Crowley can't muster the same type of humility and swallow his pride and apologize for at least SOME of his actions and remarks? Instead, he acts like he's the victim--he goes on radio talk shows and gets interviewed by media outlets claiming he is the one who is the victim in this whole situation.

And that, my friends, is white male privilege. Crowley doesn't believe he has to apologize because everything in his upbringing--everything he is told by society, especially given his line of work, tells him that there is nothing HE has to apologize to anyone. He is the ultimate symbol of white male authority--he is a white police officer.

Was this a simple case of racial profiling and racism? Nothing is ever that simple. But to ignore the evidence--to ignore the history of African Americans in this nation, especially their relationship with police officers, is to be blind to the way that race, racism, and white privilege operate in our world.

Finally, I give the last word in this post to Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis, a Sociology and black studies professor at CUNY who has written a very insightful post about flash point racism. And in the spirit of Dr. Lewis, I do hope we can untangle the complexities of race and have a richer dialogue about race and racism, because as I've already repeated in this post (and in this post's title): race is always more complicated than you think it is.


Melanie said...

"Why didn't she just talk to the men, really, that's what I want to know. It was the middle of the day. She didn't have to go up on the porch, she simply could have called out from the sidewalk and offered aid/assistance"


For a minute I thought all common sense and common courtesy had left the world.

Satsuma said...

I think you are expecting too much of uninformed neighbors.

We all know 911, we don't have the Harvard housing department phone number easily at hand.

I think the jogger should have just yelled from the street, "Do you need any help?" and then gone on from there.

And, speaking as a woman, I wish we wouldn't allow any men to have guns, and that we had millions of women policing the streets. It would certainly transform all the power imbalances that's for sure.

I don't think women police officers would ever have behaved as badly... it's always the guys, and it's always about their macho egos. One gets tired of their show.

Barbara said...

It's not just white male privilege, but white male privilege to the Nth degree because Crowley is a police officer and thus epitomizes the authority of what white male privilege imagines itself to be.

I've been hearing a lot of people griping about why can't Obama stop pointing out that Crowley screwed up because he arrested a guy in his own house for no reason, and I keep snapping back that it's because he was right. Crowley screwed up, and if we don't keep remembering that, then the frame is going to be that Gates was the one who was wrong, and he wasn't.

Anonymous said...

People today don't walk up to a person who appears to be forcing their way into a home for the same reasons no one picks up hitchhikers. It's not about race, it's about one's own personal safety.

This appears to be a case of jumping to conclusions without knowing all the facts regarding this incident...the rape accusations at Duke University involving the lacrosse team a few years ago come to mind.

Anonymous said...

In this post, you further denigrate Ms. Whalen by stating that (and in direct contradiction to the 911 tape) that she may have been showing racial bias towards blacks because as an unaccompanied woman she did not approach two unrecognized men of unknown race (one possibly Hispanic) to determine if they were engaging in criminal activities before calling the police. And yes, there is such a thing as daytime break-ins.

But the fact that you would want her to act with such reckless disregard for her own safety is not the real issue. We all have our own opinions as to what constitutes acceptable risk.

What does whether or not you had reasonable cause for questioning Whalen's racial bias at the time have to do with whether or not you owe her an apology?

I feel that if my actions or words hurt another person (or their reputation) undeservedly, then I owe them an apology and I should do what I can to undo any damage done.

And while the police (and Crowley) certainly owe her a much larger apology than yours, "They did it too/first/more" and "I didn't know" are not admirable excuses for ducking your own responsibilities.

Tami said...


I don't think this post denigrates Whalen. The 911 tape does NOT prove that she did not act with racial bias. We all make snap judgements on situations, based on the facts confronting us and our perceptions. It is the opinion of many of us looking at this situation that faced with two well-dressed men with luggage wrestling with a door in broad daylight in front of a house, we would not immediately think "intruders." for some reason, Whalen did think "intruder" and I am not convinced that race did not play a role in that conclusion.

Whalen is no monster. In this country, most people are biased against people of color (including people of color).

Anonymous said...

You weren't "questioning" her racist bias, which would have been valid. You were making stateents which were an incitement to others misinformation, hate and which were also vigilantism. If I were her, I'd sue you. And if you were Canadian, the government would sue you.


Satsuma said...

One thing just stick with me. How would we all feel of police nabbed us on our own front porch? Let's say we all just returned from a great international trip, were struggling with our front door...when...

I find it so amazing that everyone and I mean EVERYONE in America can't relate to the shock, the violation and the freak out of such a simple situation. This is about as basic as it gets, and people still want to deny racism or profiling...

Just put yourself in that's so easy to lock yourself out of a house or car, I've done it several times. No one ever put handcuffs on me!! Why can't everyone get this???
This stuff drives me N.U.T.S!!!

Anonymous said...

I've been in that position, once, and I was grateful the neighbour called the police.

I've been in the position a second time, where someone climbed into my home, through a basement window, stole electronics I needed for my job (which I lost because I then didn't have the equipment) and the neighbour in that place told the police they thought the guy was one of my relatives from the "country" (reserve).

I think Tami owes Whalen an apology. And should thank her stars Whalen hasn't read her blog, and is not, it sounds like, a vindictive person.

And then she should examine her own racial prejudice before she throws stones at someone else. This woman did a good deed, and has been irretrievablly libeled by the Tamis.


Kristen said...

"If Crowley is such a veteran of the police force and sensitive to racial profiling, why wouldn't he be courteous to Gates from the get-go?"

EXACTLY!! I've been saying the same thing all week!

I do have to say, I know you didn't write these two pieces about Lucia Whalen, but I do think the conclusions the author has jumped to about her have been awfully judgemental. Especially the "shame on you, Lucia Whalen, shame on you" bit, before knowing all the facts. To me, it is another example of where snap judgements of others can be extremely hurtful and not based on fact.

Tami said...


We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I think I have engaged with you on enough race-related topics to know that we have very different views on the subject, which begs the question: Why are you here? It's starting to feel like trolling. My views are hardly unique in the anti-racist community. You don't share them. Fine. But dropping in to angrily holler "reverse racism" isn't productive and it's not going to be tolerated. Respect my house.

Julia said...

this is completely off topic, but I just had to say--I love the new pic! I finally get to see the cute hair I've heard so much about.

And now back to more substantive conversation....


Sassy J said...

Julia, I agree--Tami, really cute pictura!

Also, this attack on you is a little misguided...didn't you put a disclaimer that this was a cross-post from Racialicious?!?! And we wonder why civil conversation can't happen? LOL

Anonymous said...

I came in good faith. I often drop in, unannounced. And this time, my mouth dropped open at your point of view.

I'm did what I always do when I see injustice. I stand. Whether in person, at a rally, in letters to someone who needs to hear and could do something about X, or on the net: I stand.

It's great to all tut about whatever with the choir.

I speak up where a dissenting voice is neeed. Imagine my surprise when I found it at WTS.

So I'm done now. I am under no illusion I'll change your mind, but I register my shock, disapproval (as a, as you call it, WOC) and I STAND.

Jennifer said...

Hello everyone,
Sorry for dipping into this conversation late--the internet access in my house is down, so I've not been doing my regular blog checks, so I had no idea Tami had cross-posted this post from my blog, MIXED RACE AMERICA (not Racialicious as someone previously had thought).

And the first thing I want to say is Thank You to Tami for cross-posting it. I haven't had anyone on my own blog ask if I needed to apologize to Lucia Whalen, and I agree with Tami, I don't think that there's anything to apologize, for multiple reason. One very simple thing: bloggers generally don't apologize, and especially not for things that don't need to be apologized for.

One commenter said she found my comment "Shame on you Lucia Whalen" judgmental. Yes, it was. I was placing judgment on her based on the facts I had on hand, which I believed to be accurate at the time because they came from multiple news outlets, including the New York Times.

So all of this is an exercise in the fact that we often don't get full facts reported by the media or by people involved in the situation for a host of reason. I think Ms. Whalen was smart to bide her time, to hire a lawyer to make the statement, and then to clarify her role in all of this, and for that I'm satisfied.

And if I did not make it clear in the original post, I do not believe she intentially racially profiled Dr. Gaets; in fact, I think she went out of her way to suggest to the police dispatcher that the situation seemed more complicated and nuanced--that there were multiple interpretations embedded in this scenario (could be a break-in, could be a neighbor with a stuck door--I'm calling because I'm not certain).

As for those who seemed to think I was putting Lucia Whalen at risk by having her simply call out to the 2 men, you obviously don't know this neighborhood. She is on the sidewalk. They are on the porch. Yes, break-ins happen in the middle of the day, but generally not violent assaults one one of the wealthiest streets in Harvard Sq. that gets regular foot traffic and where half the homes are owned by Harvard U. and cars regularly drive by. I specifically said she did not need to go up on the porch; that would be dumb on her part as a woman faced with 2 men. BUT, she could easily have called up from the sidewalk, a fair distance away, and ask if they needed assistance. And then she could have gauged their reaction. Most burglars get freaked out when you talk to them and can i.d. them. Her mild inquiry would have been enough to probably get them doing more weird things and then she could have placed the 911 call (if they had been burglars). But what probably would have happened if she just politely inquired was that we wouldn't be having this dialogue about race and racial profiling.

And that leads me to my last point in this long comment response. Racial bias and prejudice is something we ALL have. I don't absolve myself. It was easy for me to imagine that a middle-aged white woman who worked at Harvard magazine may have racial fears about black men and would racial profile them. Because that's the world I live in; a world in which I am constantly reminded and surrounded by the white privilege of others and the oppression that this causes people of color.

Lucia Whalen doesn't live under a rock; she lives in one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.--for all the talk of Cambridge being a liberal bastion, it is not immune to racism and white privilege--no where is. And all I'm saying is that what lead her to call the police rather than look up the Harvard Rental housing number (which, again, wouldn't be too difficult to find since she works for Harvard Magazine) or which prevented her from simply talking to the two men is an internalization that black men are associated with crime.

OK I'm done--if you want to continue to disagree with me, please disagree WITH ME and not with Tami, although I do strict troll patrol on my own blog, especially whenever someone mentions the name "Duke lacrosse" and signs in anonymously.


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