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.

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