Friday round-up: police state a-go-go, yee-haw!

cowgirl2Man, oh man!  The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. last week, and the dismissal of the “disorderly conduct” charges against him this week, are still top news in the U.S.A.  (Really?  I mean, isn’t that whole health care/North Korea/climate change thingy still unresolved?)  No apologies here for reporting and commentary on Skip Gates’s latest run-in with the authorities for being an African American man, since this is a blog that is full of commentary and gossip about higher ed, in addition to “history and sexual politics, 1492 to the present,” as the syllabus suggests.

Anyhoo, I’ve got a full day of exercises–physical and mental–ahead of me, so I’ll just leave you with this roundup of (mostly) intelligent commentary about l’affaire Gates, for your reading pleasure:

  • Check out Philadelphia Negro in “You Can’t Come Home Again.”  Darryl is a certified all-ivy grad who (like every other black man in America) has had his share of hassles by the authorities, on campus and off.  He writes, “we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.”
  • Prof.  Susurro tells her stories about assumptions about who’s a professor, and who’s not.  (I linked to this a few days ago, but think it’s worth highlighting again.)  Every faculty member of color I know has stories like these–every single one.
  • Rob Weir at Inside Higher Ed suggests that we “Relax and Take Five.”  Really?  This article seems to sum up the fake “objective” view that many white people have of Gates’s arrest.  He writes, “[w]hen faced with two equally believable stories [ed. note:  what special knowledge do you have that these stories are “equally believable?”] the prudent course [riiiight–because we who have different opinions are “imprudent.”  Gotcha.] is to avoid a rush to judgment [why is it that a “rush to judgment” is only a concern when it’s white people suspected of racial bias?].  In the best possible scenario there won’t be a villain or a scapegoat; both Crowley and Gates will break bread together, admit mutual misunderstanding, shake hands, and enlist as comrades in the ongoing battle to create a race-blind America.”  I don’t know for sure that Weir is white, but man, those seem like sentences that could only be written by a white man.  This is a version of the criticism those of us who write feminist blogs get when we write about experiences of sexual harassment, and we’re lectured about how we need to see the incident from the harasser’s point of view, because he was only clueless/meaning to pay a compliment/making a clumsy pass so we should re-sheathe our feminist hackles and stop reacting like hysterical b!tches.  Because there’s absolutely no context, history, or larger necessary frame for understanding the sexualization and exploitation of women or the criminalization of black men that we need to understand here–it’s just a simple misunderstanding among friends and neighbors!  Why do we always have to be so angry all of the time?  Don’t we get it that we’d make so many more profeminist/antiracist converts if we were just a little friendlier?
  • Roxie’s World, which always gets the “big picture,” has a great discussion about why they refused to publish Gates’s mug shot or other photos of his arrest.  They also have their own round-up of other tasty links for your degustation.

One final thought:  the (white) media and blogosphere seem fixed on this notion of deciding whether or not the arresting officer is “a racist.”  There are endless silly debates happening around this question:  is he or isn’t he?  This seems extremely foolish to me, since we know that white people throughout American history have benefited from a racial caste system and yet have managed to have all kinds of relationships with brown and black people–friendly or even intimate relations, in addition to antagonistic, violent, and coercive relationships.  It’s possible, or even likely, that the arresting officer didn’t set out to harass a black man last Thursday morning–but that he reacted to Gates in ways that were conditioned by the images and stereotypes we all grow up with as Americans, and that those images or stereotypes led him to treat Gates differently than he would have a white homeowner.  But, I suppose it’s easier for white people to assume that it’s only “racists” who perpetuate these images and stereotypes of black men and women–so much easier to think it’s only people in white hoods burning crosses.

Sing it with me, children, once again and this time with feeling:  racism is not a feeling or emotion that white people either have or don’t have!  It’s a system of power relations that materially affects non-white people’s experiences of the world, so white people’s experience or non-experience of a feeling or emotion is irrelevant.  Anyway, don’t get any splinters in your skirts, kids, if you can help it.  I’m outta here.


0 thoughts on “Friday round-up: police state a-go-go, yee-haw!

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Historiann, and right with you on racism as a system of power relations. Why is that point so hard for people and, especially, news media to get?

    Also, there’s curiosity in Roxie’s World as to what you and your historian pals think about those photos of Gates that we opted not to publish. Does their documentary value outweigh the potential the images have to embarrass Gates or position him within a visual/cultural logic of black male criminality, regardless of how they are contextualized? We really struggled with this and would be interested to hear from the history geeks on the issue.


  2. Thanks for fab roundup! I just want to add that it’s driving me berserk that the media wants to talk about whether or not the Gates case was a case of “racial profiling.” I mean, I guess the neighbor who called the police could be accused of racial profiling, but not the cop who showed up, since he was no doubt told that there was a possible break-in with two African-American suspects. What ensued wasn’t about profiling, but abuse of power, IMO. But I think the racial profiling discussion serves the same overall purpose as the “is he a racist?/ I’m not a racist, I have black friends!” question – as a deflection from the real issues, which is exactly as you say, the racist system perpetuated in the United States of which we are all apart and will continue to be apart until we examine and dismantle it. By talking about “let’s take five” we are willfully refusing to examine and dismantle; instead, we deny and deflect, hence perpetuating said racist system.

    I mean, anybody not disturbed enough by the commentary on the Gates situation, see media discussions of the whole “is Obama a US citizen” question, which all news outlets decided to take seriously as a legitimate question this week! Good thing we’re not talking about our imploding economy or continuing health care crisis! Let’s talk about a totally fake conspiracy perpetuated by people who persist in the face of overwhelming and unfake-able evidence! This issue is clearly a reflection of horror and disbelief from a segment of US society that simply cannot accept having a black man as president. And to see such unbelievable nonsense taken serious by pundits (I’m looking at YOU, Lou Dobbs) and *members of Congress* makes me want to vomit. (In addition to the complete lack of truthfulness of this theory, it is also pretty ironic considering how many Republicans were wetting themselves over the possibility of amending the Constitution to make non US-born folks eligible to run for president when they thought Schwarzenagger might run/win. oh right, he’s white.)


  3. Hello Historiann,
    I am a long-time casual reader of your site and like it very much. I agree with your assessment of l’affaire Gates, especially about how the media and many white folks are overly concerned about whether or not the police officer is a racist. Having spent my entire career in the South, including a decade in the Deep South, I can state with some authority that many (most?) native white southerners (in LA, MS, AL, GA, & SC anyway) think someone is only racist if they condone or commit violence towards Blacks. Lost on them completely are how attitudes, institutionalized power structures, economic disparity, and other “non-violent” characteristics of racism can constitute racism. Whereas, they also tend to believe that any Black or other non-white person who dares to point out a racist thought or act is the one exhibiting racism towards whites. It is a sickness and one that has stubbornly persisted through the decades after Brown v. Board of Education.


  4. Southern Prof–welcome, and thanks for your comment. Yes, somehow once again even when we’re talking about racism, it’s all about the white people! Amazing. And you’re right–that same trick (wherein it’s not the racism that’s divisive, it’s pointing out the racisim that’s divisive) works to silence feminist commentary. Everything used to be so awesome before the Civil Rights movement, which unleashed so much division in this country!

    perpetua: man, that oddball belief about Obama’s birth certificate is amazing. Bring on the crazzy! But, leaving aside the crazzy, even if it’s true that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., my bet is that not even this Supreme Court would rule that that fact outweighed the millions and millions of votes that Obama won last November. He’s the president, period. Me, I think the no naturalized citizens part of the Constitution is dumb and outdated, at least as much as the Electoral College. I say abolish it and bring on President Jennifer Granholm!

    And, Roxie: I think y’all made the right call on the photos. People can find them elsewhere if they have the amazing Google technology–they don’t need to see them here or over at your place. We have enough images of black male criminality in the world and in our tiny little brains–not enough images of black male intellectualism and expertise, so I like the fact you went with your photo of The Professor instead of The Suspect.

    And yes, I write this with the full acknowledgement that this blog occasionally (like today!) traffics in stereotyped sexualized images of women. But they’re so dang cute, aren’t they? Call it my effort to highlight the fact that fabulous babes can also have Ph.D.s and be funny, too.


  5. Interesting discussions of the case going on over at Crooked Timber, too. On a slightly different note, I have a younger female colleague who was asked three different times by our last SLAC President about her classes — as in, “do you like your professors?” And another colleague — middle-aged, chair of her department, and an associate dean — who has had to order a name tag for big public days like orientation, because she has been mistaken for a parent, a catering worker (by an incoming freshman), and most frequently, an admin assistant — even when she is sitting at her rather imposing desk in a very large office. So her name tag says “Dr.” and “Associate Dean”.

    Don’t even get me started on students who call all the women faculty Mrs, and the male faculty Professor …


  6. agggggghhhh, that Rob Weir piece — “everybody has to admit they are a little bit wrong” —- agggggghhh. It’s like the fair & balanced approach of Fox News: “some scientists say global warming is happening! Other scientists say no it isn’t! Maybe they should all just agree it’s controversial!”

    I decided against reading the comments as the IHE comment threads are usually full of pseudonymous people angreee! about PC profs! and such!!!! The thought that many of them probably work as educators kills my soul a little too much every time.


  7. Pingback: on the gates incident « old money

  8. Eric Rauchway put up a note on Gatesgate at Edge of the American West. I added the mug shot. At the time, I was thinking what a shock it was to see such a familiar, well-respected face subjected to that demeaning treatment. Now, though, I regret adding it — the visual frame-up, as it were, is more powerful than I gave it credit for.


  9. I don’t want SouthernProf’s comments to get lost in the shuffle b/c ze has articulated precisely what I’ve found to be the most difficult aspect of the dialogue we’re all supposed to be having about race. For a certain group of (often conservative) white people, it’s not racism unless there’s been physical violence, which then means nothing is racism. Racial profiling doesn’t exist, even in the face of clear evidence. Katrina was just a hurricane. There’s always a reason to excuse away what I’d call racism as something else because the only thing that could match that standard would be physical violence. And I’ve found this most disturbingly in my own generation, with people I’ve grown up with. I was accused of shoplifting in a shoe store where both me and a white friend had tried on shoes but neither of us had purchased any. I was the one who was stopped, on the assumption that I was wearing shoes from the store. I got out of the store with little fuss because the accuser had really no ground to stand on. The problem though is that in shoe stores people try shoes on so why I got stopped seemed fishy. Not to mention, the black woman who was working the store door hadn’t made a similar complaint. Of course, my friend thought nothing of it despite the fact that I was devastated. Ze tried to laugh it off and even told the story to hir parents in the hope that their laughing it off would make me realize I was making too much of a deal of it.

    I’d also add that certain racial epithets can also be explained away as “confusion” over what can be said and what can’t be said given the frequency of usage by hip hop artists.

    This certainly isn’t every white person out there or even a majority. Nor, I want to stress, is it even all or most conservatives. I think most of these people are conservatives; I don’t think most conservatives are these people. Plus nobody is immune from racist thoughts. What troubles me though is that it is impossible to make any headway on these issues as long as a certain faction refuses to acknowledge anything as racist unless they’re presented with bodies swinging from trees. (I say that because I’m not even convinced police brutality would qualify for some of these people.)

    As for the regional component of SouthernProf’s comment, ze may be right but I’m far too pessimistic to relegate that to the south. I think there’s a lot of racism bubbling in parts of the country that have slid under the radar by benefit of not being in the South. New Haven and Cambridge seem to spring to mind, just randomly of course.


  10. thefrogprincess–great points. Yes, I was going to comment too about how it’s not just southern whites but whites from all over. It’s not just a regional thing–it’s everywhere.


  11. thefrogprincess, so right on! It always has driven me crazy that Nixon’s plan for winning elections for Republicans (racist dog-whistles) gets called the “Southern Strategy” as it was clearly an “American Strategy” and worked all over the country for years.

    I actually disagree with Southern Prof; I think Southerners are a little *less* prone to that “what me racist?” reaction because the region is a little less in denial about racism. I taught very briefly at a liberal arts college in the South and the one time I had a student go into a near-tears “but I am SO not racist!” meltdown in a course discussion of structural racism she was (a) from the Pacific northwest; (b) clearly didn’t know how to deal with the presence of black fellow students in class, never having had real live black peers before — schools in the U.S. South now are actually *less* segregated than are schools elsewhere– and (c) also told a long story about how she couldn’t be racist because she had an “Indian princess” as a distant ancestor and so in fact should be able to claim minority status herself.

    wait, where was I? Okay, one anecdote does not a point make. But to leap sideways to another point, when I get really despairing about this stuff I do take heart from the fact that people’s insane, implausible, jaw-dropping denials of racism *at least* mean that the message that “racism is bad” has penetrated every level of American culture. That too many white people take home from that message “but I am not bad, therefore I cannot be racist” is exasperating but there’s a glimmer of something useful there.


  12. Re: the TalkLeft link — with the overall racial politics of Boston and the class and town/gown dynamics in Cambridge, it looks like there could be a very interesting storm brewing.


  13. historiann writes:

    It’s possible, or even likely, that the arresting officer didn’t set out to harass a black man last Thursday morning–but that he reacted to Gates in ways that were conditioned by the images and stereotypes we all grow up with as Americans, and that those images or stereotypes led him to treat Gates differently than he would have a white homeowner.

    This is one of the most singularly astute things I’ve read recently on the issue.

    I think the “white blogosphere” and media pundits need to determine whether the police officer is racist or not, stems from the need to negate societal racism or the permeation of our day-to-day experiences with oppression. If we talk about these incidents in terms of both/and rather than either/or we will have to deal with the ways in which “good people” are implicated in racism and often act from a place of racial privilege when it benefits them.

    As you keep valiantly pointing out here, and I appreciate it more than blog comments can say, race relations, like gender relations, in this country are more complex than white hoods and presidential appointments.


  14. Susurro: “If we talk about these incidents in terms of both/and rather than either/or we will have to deal with the ways in which “good people” are implicated in racism and often act from a place of racial privilege when it benefits them.”

    Yes, indeed, astute one yourself! I wonder if your hit counter is going nuts like mine is this week, esp. after my Gates post…

    It’s so nice that we’ve moved on from talking about Michael Jackson’s death, isn’t it? Now we’re talking about another black man’s confrontation with the hegemon. Awesome!


  15. oh sad — Obama just said he “regrets his language” (saying the police acted “stupidly”) about the Gates arrest. Why, why, why do our politicians keep backing down in the face of bad-faith fainting fits by the right? What do they think it is going to earn them except more of the same?


  16. Kathleen–well, I think it has something to do with not handing your political opposition a loaded gun pointing back at you. I’m sure Bill O’Lielly wet his pants when Obama said that the C.P.D. had acted “stupidly.” Who among us thinks that Obama’s first statement was inauthentic? IMHO, that stands and his attempts to back away from it are probably pointless now. (But I get why he’s trying to walk it back.)


  17. I agree with Kathleen Lowrey about south/non-south racism. I have lived in the south, the midwest, and New England and I have observed appalling examples of racism everywhere. The biggest difference to me between the south and the non-south is that it’s a little harder for the south to dismiss racism and race relations and a lot easier for northerners to be sanctimonious and “what me?!”

    I also agree with susurro (and Historiann, as I think your points were very similar) about the need to fixate on an individual who may or may not be racist, to avoid issues of societal racism.

    That also puts us in a weird position where people try to put others in a box of “pro-law enforcement/anti-Gates” or “anti-law enforcement/pro-Gates” which to me is a weird false dichotomy that misses the point.


  18. I hate leaving this sort of comment, for it is stupid, but I’ve been restructuring gen. ed. at my university all day, so I will: Everything y’all have said about racism? I totally agree.


  19. The bad part about Obama backing down on the “acted stupidly” comment is that for once a prominent politician said what a lot of us know already — cops act stupidly all the time. And it’s not jut about racism (Rodney King), it’s about having a little power. That’s why they call it the thin blue line. And like racism, it’s not about individual cops (some good ones, they work hard, tough job, some nice people), it’s about police forces in which abuse and racism are part of the institution’s history.


  20. I also want to add that for Crowley being a teacher on racial profiling, why was he surprised that Gates wasn’t polite, that Gates didn’t hop to white man’s commands? Gates showed proof that he lived in his house and it STILL wasn’t adequate enough. Black men being hauled off from their own houses by white cops would SURELY be addressed in a racial profiling course, right? Crowley would/should have experience and knowledge about the fear, rightfully so, black men have in being hauled away to the slammer by white men, right?

    Chris Rock has a “how not to get your a$$ kicked by the police” educational video.

    1) Obey the law 2) Use common sense 3) Stop immediately 4) Turn that sh*t off 5) Be polite 6) STFU 7) Get a white friend 8) Don’t ride with a mad woman.

    I linked you over at Isis.


  21. Historiann, “Everything used to be so awesome before the Civil Rights movement, which unleashed so much division in this country!” Yeah, damn people who want their rights, just squawking and making everyone else’s life hell. There’s only so many rights to go around, you know.

    Seriously, I do agree with the point that making it a discussion about an *individual’s* racism (or sexism, or homophobia, etc.) allows folks to side-step the fact that we *all* live in a systemically racist, sexist, homophobic society. That doesn’t mean it’s static, but it won’t change overnight.

    Oh, and apparently Obama has invited Gates and the arresting officer to the White House to have a beer. And, I suppose, chuckle about the whole silly misunderstanding? LOL WUT?


  22. If I were President and speaking from first reactions, I would have said, “It is impolite to be rude to the police. It is unprofessional and unacceptable for the police to react to that.”

    What’s so difficult about those concepts?


  23. quixote: it’s not ILLEGAL to be “impolite.” People who are “impolite” are not ordinarily subject to arrest, so it’s not merely “unprofessional” to arrest someone for this. C.P.D. engaged in a gross violation of someone’s rights, which when we look at the broad sweep of American history, looks like it was racially informed.

    I really don’t think that Prof. Gates’s etiquette violation rises to the level of incarceration. I don’t even myself see it as an etiquette viloation: if someone with paramilitary authority and a gun was in my house after I had told him to leave, you’d better you bet I’d be angry and frightened, and I probably would be extremely “impolite” myself. The U.S. Constitution should trump Miss Manners, every time.


  24. In Colorado, it can get you dead.

    The Make My Day Law can allow a resident to shoot from within his house at a stranger, if there is a belief that harm is intended to that resident. This, of course, exempts shots at the police, so go know.

    What interests me is that I’m not hearing squat about or from the bodyguard, who was the guy breaking down the front door in the first place. It wasn’t just Gates the neighbor was reacting to — it was the Big Guy. You know, the Big Guy that’s like that guy in the Brinks ad, who jumped on the door and broke it? Yeah, him.


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