What is so amazing about the current racial contretemps that is obsessing the punditocracy is its distance from the actual events in Cambridge on July 16. Sure, it fits people’s stereotypes, both black and white, whether they tend to identify the culprit as the racist cop or the full-of-himself Harvard professor. But although Officer James Crowley’s behavior in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. was indefensible–who can defend arresting a sick, middle-aged man who walks with a cane, threatened no one and had shown his ID because you don’t like his tone of voice?–that hardly makes it racist. Crowley, who has led classes at the Lowell Police Academy in how to avoid racial profiling, made no reference to Gates’s race during the confrontation. (And the neighborhood has been prone to home invasion.) When Gates initially claimed, “You’re not responding because I’m a black man and you’re a white officer,” nothing that took place on his property that day gave him cause for this suspicion.
Virtually everyone, white or black, with whom I spoke or e-mailed assumed the same racialized context. I didn’t, however, because this white-boy columnist of yours–rather, um, stupidly–got himself arrested and handcuffed at a presidential debate in New Hampshire in 2007 for reasons remarkably similar to those that ensnared Gates at his home. The issues I faced were two. Was the cop who I felt was harassing me going to give me his name and badge number? And was I going to conduct myself in the obsequious manner he seemed to demand? (To be honest, had I imagined for a second that he might arrest me for the crime of calling him “dude” when asking him to stop interrupting me while I was discussing–quite calmly and politely–the incident with his superior officer, I would have kept my mouth shut.) It was obviously nothing racial, but when I told people the details of what happened, the reaction often was. A federal judge I met at a book party told me she thought all privileged white media types should be forced to undergo the same experience to better understand what it is like to be a young black man in America.
Gates not only racialized the issue with Officer Crowley; he did so immediately in the media. “Really it’s not about me–it’s that anybody black can be treated this way, just arbitrarily arrested out of spite,” he explained. And virtually all of the commentary about the incident has focused on race. Michael Eric Dyson said Gates had committed the crime of “HWB, housing while black.” Stanley Fish explained, “The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house.” A much-discussed essay by someone calling himself “Phantom Negro” attacked Gates, who was alleged to believe himself immune to the kind of harassment routinely doled out to black men by cops in this country. “He all but says, Do I look like that type of (black) person? I was wearing a blazer and a polo shirt!” The nastiness aside, this echoes a point Gates made in a brilliant New Yorker essay he wrote after the O.J. Simpson verdict, quoting Spike Lee, who said, “The police ‘don’t really bother black people once they are a personality,'” and Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals, who said, “I’m not black. I’m famous.”
Barack Obama also fell into the trap of attaching a racialized reading to the incident, no doubt pleasing many liberals and leftists. California Representative Barbara Lee announced at a news conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, “I think the president was right on target. We come from communities where some of us…have been racially profiled. [This is an] example of the unfinished business in America and inequalities and the racism that continues to exist.”
Of course, conservatives, sensing an opening in Obama’s critical comments about a white cop–any white cop–provided a near-perfect mirror image. Heather Mac Donald accused the president of “promoting racial paranoia,” as if there were no statistics demonstrating the enormous racial disparity in arrests of black and Latino men for crimes they did not commit. Rush Limbaugh told Fox that Obama was “angry…ot proud” of his country. Glenn Beck claimed that Obama’s response demonstrated a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” And the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched banner website ads asking for a vote on whether Obama’s comments were “presidential.”
Given my profound admiration for Skip Gates, I’m saddened to say that I share the judgment of Glenn Loury, who said in a New York Times op-ed that he finds “laughable, and sad, Professor Gates’s declaration that he now plans to make a [PBS] documentary film about racial profiling”–though for different reasons. Loury is understandably concerned about the lower-class blacks and Latinos who get the brunt of police mistreatment. Think about it: how many of the people who share the views of Limbaugh, Mac Donald and the GOP leadership are likely to be moved by a PBS documentary? Racism is poison, to be sure, but so, unfortunately in our culture, is talking about it. As Wynton Marsalis observed to Gates in The New Yorker, regarding O.J., “You want your side to win…. And the thing is, we’re still at a point in our national history where we look at each other as sides.”
Given that no racial profiling took place here, and we live in media world driven by cable idiots and Murdoch minions, this is not the “teachable moment” for which liberals and civil rights groups are so understandably eager. But it may be a moment to secure universal healthcare, restore the Bill of Rights and stimulate genuine income growth for workers of all colors if we can somehow move past this nonsense. As nobody (usually) knows better than Barack Obama, it is far better to focus on what unites us. Class, not race, is a winner in American politics. Just ask our newest media sensation, Officer James Crowley.