Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Post Is Not About Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Attempt To Enter His Own Home In Cambridge, MA

As news about Professor Gates' confrontation with the Cambridge Police Department was breaking -- or was it shortly after the President spoke so forcefully about it? -- a friend turned to me and said: "Do not blog about this."

That may be some version of what Michelle Obama was thinking as she saw her husband embark on what I thought was a humorous, candid and incisive commentary on the events surrounding a wealthy Harvard professor, his friend, being schooled by the police. (As an aside: if Obama were a blogger, he would have known not to use any derivative of the word "stupid." Feminist bloggers know the content of what they are trying to say dissolves as (male) conservatives leap to censure them for disparaging such noble whitemale institutions as American policing or the Varsity Sport That Must Never Be Mentioned.) If there had been a thought bubble over Michelle's head, it would have said something like: "Oh Barack, do not be honest with white people about this thing. They cannot handle it." And indeed, it seems that we cannot.

Black commenters have spoken eloquently about the class and racial dynamics attendant to Professor Gates' arrest, particularly here and here. I think white people have very little to add to some parts of this story, and so I would only like to thank the President for having said an honest and true thing. Why, even if I didn't agree, it's such a relief to hear a President do that! I don't even think the word "stupid" is a fatal flaw: my guess is that it was a place-holder for "racist" in the way people often substitute a non-descriptive word for the descriptive one when trying to speak about repetitive, painful events (Spouse: "How was the department meeting?" You -- a seething full professor who has just been treated like she knows nothing about her own field by a bunch of people not in her field -- "Oh, it was just stupid." And you say that because if you said "It was so sexist" you would have to experience that stab of knowing that nothing you do, ever, will cause them to stop treating you badly; that you will always have to endure it.) And of course, there were many layers of racism in this incident: from the anonymous white person who called the police in the first place, to the white officer unwilling to appear intimidated by a wealthy black Harvard professor's rage, to the news media choosing to depict Professor Gates in handcuffs screaming, or with a mug shot, rather than using any one of a number of portraits that are commonly available (In less than half a minute, I downloaded the one in this post from his academic web page.)

So I want to talk about and to that anonymous white neighbor. Because I am a white neighbor of black and brown people, one who lives in an urban university environment, and there are a few things I have learned.

Primarily what I have learned is that white people put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women's activism against lynching as early as the 1930s. I have learned that while many of us believe racially integrated neighborhoods are desirable, and some of us actively seek them out, no one talks to white people about their responsibilities for reigning in the racism that inevitably follows when white and black people come into proximity with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that white people put black people into danger all the time as a result of their good intentions, and that being aware of this is a full time job. I worry, for example, every time a close friend of mine I have known since college -- a major property owner in the neighborhood, with an Ivy degree, wealthy, and a football celebrity -- borrows my lawn equipment, because to your average cop he is just another _________ (fill in the blank) walking down the driveway and up the street with someone else's electric mower.

This kind of awareness is very painful to come to terms with, as was the time I was driving a black job candidate around Zenith, stopped to ask directions, and saw the white man in his pretty suburban yard hurrying his children into the house -- until he noticed that there was a white woman getting out of the driver's side. I could feel his relief as an almost physical thing between us. As one of my friends said later about the job candidate, "I guess it's something he should know about what it would mean to live here." Of course he did already -- it was me who had to learn it.

Coming to terms with slights, and ones that can turn into a dangerous situation in a heartbeat, is something every person of color in America deals with and knows more about than virtually any white person: I don't care if Republican senators like Jeff Sessions says it ain't so, it is so. Sonia Sotomayor is absolutely correct on this point. And to my mind, white people have a responsibility to come to an awareness about this. and act on it as a moral responsibility. To wit:

About two years ago, I was about to leave on a trip; my partner had taken the car somewhere else, so our driveway was empty. As I opened the door to a small hallway that leads to our back door with a bag of garbage in my hand, at that precise moment, a man standing at the door popped the lock with a screwdriver and stepped into my house.

I was, needless to say, surprised, and so was he. I said, "what the fuck are you doing in my house?" He said, very politely, "I'm so sorry," turned around, closed the door, and walked swiftly down my driveway. I came shooting out the door, shouting some version of what I had already said as he turned the corner of the driveway and disappeared. Needless to say, I was very frightened, and probably would not have behaved so aggressively if I had not been.

I called the police. It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, since my neighborhood suffers from a lot of petty theft that I suspect is endemic to neighborhoods full of students from the 'burbs who can be pretty casual about locking up: laptops next to open windows disappear, bicycles are liberated from back yards and so on. I described the thief the best I could: around 5'8" (my height); medium-complected African-American; shaved head; round preppy glasses; middle-aged; dressed in a tennis shirt, pressed chinos and white sneakers. He looked," I said helpfully, "Like a college professor." What happened next was instructive: the investigating officer put the description out, and asked if I wanted to ride around and look at a variety of men who were being braced around the neighborhood for my inspection. I did, and with sinking heart, I saw "suspect" after "suspect" who looked absolutely nothing like the description I had given. They were tall; they were short; they were twelve; they were old; they were dressed like bangers; they were dressed in rags; to a man, they had full heads of hair, mustaches and beards; none were wearing glasses, and so on. Oh yes -- all of them were, as far as I could tell, Latino, which in Shoreline generally means Mexican or Puerto Rican.

As I tried not to be sick with shame all over the officer's front seat, I thought three things. One was, I hope to Heaven they have not picked up one of my friends or one of the next door neighbor's children (who were routinely picked up by the police after a purse-snatching in the neighborhood.) The second was, how easy it would have been for me to say, "That's him!" either in honest error or not and cause someone a world of trouble that was beyond humiliation: being taken to jail indefinitely, a lost job, being kept out of school, being found guilty of another misdemeanor. And the third was, this is what racial profiling looks like. Unless I or someone I know has been violently assaulted, I must never, ever call the police again for something so small if I am going to be a responsible citizen of this neighborhood. Letting someone get away with attempted robbery, a person who was completely non-violent (which experienced burglars are), is absolutely worth not humiliating ten other people who the police are using this opportunity to intimidate and shake down for evidence that they are committing some other petty crime.

This kind of event is, of course, part of what police mean by being in control, and what the officer was doing when he arrested Professor Gates who was guilty of nothing more than saying angry, nasty things at the top of his lungs as a crowd gathered. When a police officer makes an arrest like that he is saying, "See? I can do this. I can make your life a living hell for an hour, a day, or longer. I require deference." The desired result is how many black men describe living their lives: a constant state of uncertainty as to what the police will actually do in any given situation, resulting in the need for profound deference and elaborate forms of self governance at all times (don't run, wear too much jewelry, show money or speed when driving; make sure you dress nicely, cut your hair, avert your eyes, carry your company/university ID at all times.) A policeman intimidates so that he does not have to use violence (hence, making the risk of violence to his own person greater.) This can be best accomplished when a large number of people already believe that a policeman could become violent at any moment, for any reason at all. And why do the police not do this to white people as much as to black people?

Because, God help us, we white folks believe the police are our friends.

So Mrs. Cambridge White Neighbor, what should you have done? You should have stopped and asked the gentleman who was trying to get into the house if he needed help -- and did he want to use your cell phone to call a locksmith (hint: burglars don't jimmy the front door in full sight of everyone.) If he had no business getting into the house, he would have left. If he did have business in the house, he might have said, "No thanks -- I think I've got it!" Or, "We've had so much rain, are your doors stuck too? " Or, "Yes, thank you, I need to call my wife -- hi, I'm Skip."

But you didn't. Perhaps it was because you fear black male strangers, like so many white people, no matter how they are dressed. But my guess is that you were embarrassed. You thought, "This is probably a Harvard professor trying to get into his own house, but if I stop and ask, he's going to think I think he's a criminal just because he's black. And he might think I am a racist! I can't risk that. So just to be safe -- I'll call the police!"

And my point is, Mrs. White Neighbor: safe for who? Why safe for you! Because the police are not a neutral party in such matters. They are not paid to help you navigate the social awkwardness of identifying your neighbors in a racially integrated neighborhood. They are paid to intimidate people who are physically similar to Professor Gates on your behalf, which means you cannot call them and expect that there will be no damage. To save yourself embarrassment or fear, you put a neighbor in a position in which there was a high likelihood that he would be arrested, physically injured or killed. He knew that -- why didn't you? And this is something I have not heard anyone say as a possible explanation for why Professor Gates behaved as he did in this situation.

He was frightened. And if so, in my experience, he was right to be.


JackDanielsBlack said...

I dunno, TR, if I were away and one of my neighbors or a passerby saw folks trying to jimmy my door, I would hope that they would call the police immediately, and not risk their lives by trying to intervene themselves. Wouldn't matter whether the jimmiers were white or black, either -- but maybe that's just me. I would be pissed if someone saw folks breaking in and failed to call the police, but I would feel terrible if they acted as you suggest and got themselves shot as a result -- and in many neighborhoods in this great land of ours, that is a real possibility.

Tenured Radical said...


I understand why you would feel that way - and I think the ethical dilemma for me is: am I willing to guarantee the safety of one group of people (the people I know) by potentially unleashing the police on another group of people?

My decision is no. But I also think that white people -- whatever their response to this dilemma -- should stop acting as though racism has nothing to do with "us" and is all about "them." The President himself walks this line, I think, in his "take responsibility" speeches, which was why I was glad to see him depart from this position in his speech.

I would also say that there are two features of this problem that are telling. One is that any number of white police have pointed out that this officer acted unreasonably in this situation and should have just walked away. Another is that one of the things black officers fear most is being shot by their white colleagues.

Daisy Deadhead said...

A college dropout who recently found your blog, TR--really enjoy your writing.

Primarily what I have learned is that white people put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women's activism against lynching as early as the 1930s.

The late (white lesbian peace activist) Barbara Deming described organizing in the south, and how she was counseled never to walk beside black men in marches or sit beside them in meetings... they (not her) might get beaten or killed for that. It's so jolting to read her words now...but we really have to make sure folks understand HISTORY, you know?

This is a fantastic post, love the real-life examples... we can all fulminate and fuss over this incident, but reaching into our life-experience and pulling out actual details and authentic experiences and sharing them, that's the way to get it done and learn from this debacle.

And yeah, I have discovered the same situation... strangers jimmying an apt door open. I jsut blurted out, "hey, who are you guys?" Ohhh, they turned out to be the new part time maintenance crew, later they came to my apt too....I did not shriek and call the law. Good lord.

But you know, I could have.

Great post.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, it is true that some white officers said they would have walked away -- yet I saw a black officer on TV who was at the scene who said that he thought the officer in question acted reasonably. If I were a police officer myself, I would have probably done as the Cambridge officer did, on the basis that I don't get paid enough to have to take this kind of shit from anybody.

As far as black officers being afraid of being shot by white officers by mistake, I am sure that white officers have this fear as well. Policing is a dangerous business, and mistakes in judgment are sometimes fatal.

In general, I do not love the police, having had a few run ins with them myself. Trust me, they don't just harass black folks. However, as an educated member of the upper middle class, I knew enough not to lose my cool and give them a hard time. And I also realized that imperfect as they are, they are all that stands between us and anarchy.

When you advocate treating black folks different from white folks, it seems to me that you run the danger of condescending to them. It's sort of like affirmative action -- once it takes place, many (a majority?) assume that everyone in the favored class who gets a job is incompetent and only there because they are a member of that class.

Nic D'Alessio said...

I think it's important to underscore that this "anonymous white woman" wasn't even a resident of Cambridge, but of Malden. She was literally passing through. I think this foregrounds the implicit (at least) racism demonstrated by the woman's assumption that two black men must be burglars rather than one of them a resident in Cambridge. This also reveals a certain class bias. As we well know, racism is never present without other forms of prejudice; they are coimplicated techniques of repression.

Ahistoricality said...

She was literally passing through.

No, she works several doors down from Gates' house. Which is to say, TR, that she's not "anonymous" at all, though Gates himself has absolved her of responsibility in this instance.

TR, I do disagree, though, about a few things. First, I don't think white people have "nothing" to add: Digby, for example, wrote an excellent piece on the nature of police authority.

Second, I don't think "stupid" was code for "racist": I think it was code for "unconstitutional." Remember, Obama was a Con Law professor before he was a politician; that he's appointed as a supreme court justice one of the most pro-police/pro-prosecutor liberals (we're pretty sure, anyway) he could find means that you have to go pretty far overboard to raise his constitutional hackles.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Ahistoricality:

The Digby post is excellent: thanks for providing the link, and for the update on our Concerned Citizen (who probably feels dreadful about what happened.)

Actually what I said was that "white people have very little to add to some parts of this story." I added the qualifiers because -- well, I was gonna go ahead and write about it -- but also because I think race doesn't (dis)qualify people from offering a thoughtful analysis abot anything, much less matters racial.

Anonymous said...

TR, thank you for this really smart, clear, and succinct post.

I was struck especially by the force of two things that you wrote: that the police "require deference" and "are paid to intimidate people who are physically similar to Professor Gates on your behalf ..."

The fact that agents of the state have a monopoly on legitimate violence (a right upheld by juries under most circumstances even when death at the hands of those agents has been the result to non-Caucasian or poor people who have done nothing illegal) and the predilection on the part of many who commented in blogs and newspapers about this matter to blame the victim of an abuse of power, both combine to bring us to a crux that you are identifying. And that's the disciplining of those deemed non-normative in some way as the means of helping the majority population feel "safe." A gift often unrequested but hardly ever refused. Especially since the gift is seldom offered in explicit language. And for me that's part of the gift of your post: that it makes explicit the unspoken transaction as well as your decision to refuse the gift.

Yes, that is the exchange the majority population makes with the police. And the fact that sometimes even those who come close to social, ethnic, or class norms, or those who actually embody the norms, get treated in an abusive manner doesn't sufficiently interrupt the unthought-through acquiescence in legitimate state violence.

I can't count the number of people who have written in public discussion forums this week to say that Gates should have known better than not to show the "required deference." Because that deference is part of the way we "pay" these agents, a kind of surplus to their salaries as government employees. If we don't pay, they might turn on us.

I am a black female academic, who has been stopped by cops with a spouse, with my son, with black male graduate studens, and, four times, all by myself (I have very short hair and am sometimes mistakened for a man). I have been terrified each time that being non-Caucasian has suddenly made simple circumstances (running an errand, buying gas, eating ice-cream in public, going to my campus office, all while black) life-threatening. And I (and the others with me) have sometimes not exhibited proper deference with varying outcomes as a result. Still, we're lucky. We haven't paid the price that some have.

I don't know any black people who haven't experienced some version of what I've experienced. None.

And that's almost unbearable to think about very long when I think about my age and the reach of my family and social network.

Yet rallying people to take up the problem of citizen oversight responsibility for abuses of police power is difficult work. The illusion of some possible "safety" secured by not exercising that oversight muscle seems so very tempting.

Thanks for writing.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I also thought the Digby piece was thoughtful and a worthwhile contribution. And I thought that the suggestion for Obama, Gates and Sergeant Crowley to come to the White House for a beer (which all have apparently agreed to) was inspired. As LBJ used to say before his presidency was ruined by Vietnam, "Come, let us reason together". A little frank talking is what is needed here.

Digger said...

TR, thanks for this. Re: going to the White House for a beer. I thought it was weird, and found it disturbing. I didn't get the impression there was going to be "frank talking", I read it as essentially sweeping all the larger issues under the rug. "Nothing to see here! Look, we're all just having some suds together, all friends, no worries! Look away, now!"

Sure, they *could* say no, but really? Who says no to the President?

JackDanielsBlack said...

I hope the President promotes "frank talking" at this beer event. I think it might have been Malcolm X who said he'd rather deal with George Wallace than with white liberals, because at least with George Wallace he knew where he stood. I don't see how we can make real racial progress until we can all look each other in the eye and speak frankly, and I think with his gesture that Obama is trying to promote this in a first small step. But we shall see.

Anonymous said...

why do you post that about the anonymous white woman when several news sources have identified the caller? The caller is a Harvard fundraiser.

Anonymous said...

'But I also think that white people -- whatever their response to this dilemma -- should stop acting as though racism has nothing to do with "us" and is all about "them."'

Wow. I thought racism was about anyone who judged people based on their race, whatever the race of either party.

thefrogprincess said...

Anonymous 5:22 makes a point that I actually just made to a pastor at a church I used to attend who was downplaying the incident. Black people, especially black men, have to worry that their next encounter with the police might be the moment they die. I'm pretty sure white people going on about their normal business (i.e. not committing crime) never have to worry about this.

The Ryan Moates incident a few months ago (where a cop held Moates and his family at gun point in the parking lot of a hospital for speeding because his mother in law was dying) is instructive here. Throughout the whole incident, another older man stayed with Moates. Turns out, it was the dying woman's father, who stayed down there no doubt because he wanted to make sure that Moates didn't end up dead at the hands of a police offer who refused to let him go see his dying mother-in-law, even after a nurse confirmed that the woman was crshing.

Thanks for this post, Tenured Radical; it's really insightful.

thefrogprincess said...

Oh, another thing. There was a story a few years back about a woman who had been raped by a black man but identified the wrong man. Thanks to DNA evidence, it came out several years later that she'd made a mistake and the person wrongly imprisoned was released. The two men looked quite different but even though she knew she'd made a mistake and was extremely saddened, she still couldn't see that the two men looked nothing alike. Your story with the police reminded me of that one.

Here's a link to that article.

Unknown said...

racism, of course, is not our problem. It’s yours. We simply suffer from the effects of your problem.

-Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

Anonymous said...

Unless I or someone I know has been violently assaulted, I must never, ever call the police again for something so small if I am going to be a responsible citizen of this neighborhood. Letting someone get away with attempted robbery, a person who was completely non-violent (which experienced burglars are), is absolutely worth not humiliating ten other people who the police are using this opportunity to intimidate and shake down for evidence that they are committing some other petty crime.

TR, are you really saying that your definition of yourself as a responsible neighbor means you will not call the police until *after* one of your neighbors has been the victim of a violent crime? I'm not trying to be snarky - really, I'm not - but how are you determining this threshold? B&E is okay, but you'll call the cops if you happen to hear screams? No for a hit-and-run in which there's only damage to a vehicle or minor personal injury? What are the situations in which you will call the police, and what are the situations in which you will not? What are the situations in which you will be fine with your neighbors not calling the police if you are the victim? Is this something you've discussed with your neighbors? And does it apply everywhere, or just in your own neighborhood (or in situations in which the person who is - or is perceived to be - committing the crime is African-American or Hispanic)?

I'm also a little unnerved by your seeming assertion that experienced burglars are completely non-violent. I'm sure that many are not, but there are plenty of burglaries that do become violent, even when there is no prior history, and even when the burglar did not initially intend to do anything other than steal.

In your response to JackDanielsBlack above, you state that you are not "willing to guarantee the safety of of one group of people (the people [you] know) by potentially unleashing the police on another group of people." I understand that I am making a bit of an extreme case, but if there were a situation in which you witnessed someone breaking into your neighbor's house and you did nothing, and your neighbor wound up being injured or killed, would you be comfortable explaining to your neighbor or his/her family that you took no action because of the possibility that police would unjustifiably harass innocent people in trying to find the perpetrator? I am well aware of the problems of racial profiling, witness misidentification, police intimidation and harassment, etc. But why is the safety of one group of people less valuable than that of another?

A couple of years ago, my home was broken into in the middle of the night. The guy was starting to come up the stairs, but one of the steps creaked, and he turned around and ran back down and out of the house. I woke up and looked out the window just in time to see him jump into a car and drive off. I called the cops with a description of the car, and shortly thereafter they arrested the guy, who had several pieces of my property in his possession... along with a knife (and I'm not talking about a little pocket knife) strapped to his leg. I've always thought about what would have happened without that creaky step, or if I'd come out of my room to see who was there.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Anonymous:

I am very glad you raised all these points, and let me just start by expressing my heartfelt sympathy for the home invasion you suffered -- I was once the victim of a violent assault, and the effects stay with you for a very long time.

Forgive me for giving you what may be an overly complex answer, but I am not saying that I would never call the police under any circumstances: I think there is a big middle ground of active decision making that we need to talk about. There is the extreme of when you would *not* call the police probably -- for example, if your car were broken into - because there is just no point, it will take time, it doesn't help you solve the immediate problem of coming up with $500 to make the car drivable again. Then there is the other extreme: someone is zipping down the street recklessly and hits -- or nearly hits -- someone, and you believe strongly that an injury to another person is immanent. But most worrisome things that happen in automobiles occur in a middle zone, where you are an observer, and have to decide whether what you saw was dangerous enough to warrant an intervention.

Now you might say that *any* time someone enters your home, unauthorized, warrants a response of some kind. And I would understand that, and understand why attempting to stop someone who does that might reasonably seem to be prevention of a more serious crime. But frankly, I have spent a lot of time with criminals, and for a time in graduate school lived among them, and my experience says that most criminals are no more violent than the general population. In fact, experienced thieves are significantly less violent, because the penalties (should they be caught) for violence or weapons possession during the commission add to the penalty for the crime committed.

But having said that -- part of what I am trying to get people to come to terms with is that in a mixed neighborhood, what racial profiling means is that when you call the police you are not doing it to benefit all of your neighbors. In fact, you sacrifice the interests of one set of neighbors for the benefit of another set of neighbors. And the dragnets that police commonly put out to try to catch one perp can have significant ramifications for many, many innocent people.

This kind of policing gives us the illusion of control, not actual control, particularly when you consider how common it is for an innocent person to be arrested and convicted for a crime s/he did not commit. This not only ruins lives and perpetuates social and structural racism, but leaves criminals on the street.

Yolanda said...

I know a little girl whose life was saved (she was being raped and dismembered in a field) because a "nosy" neighbor called the police when she heard something suspicious. Also, I think it's a fantastic idea for the woman to approach two men who look like they're forcing themselves into a house. Use your brain - the world can be dangerous. People aren't obligated to err on the side of politically correct just in case the person might be a minority.

The Husky Bro said...

Very good post. I disagree with how Gates handled the situation.

When you're a black man in America, you should know by the time that you're an adult, that situations, like the one that occured with him, are going to occur. When they do, you plan accordingly and avoid doing things you know will get you locked up or even worse.

We may not like how that sounds or what it implies, but, as Walter Cronkite (RIP) would say, "...and that's the way it is".

Tenured Radical said...

Yolanda: If anyone were screaming as she was being raped and dismembered I would probably call too. I'll just leave the rest of your comment for others to interpret as they wish.

Troy: Thanks -- and I respect your assessment of the situation. My (white) sister once got clobbered by a cop and arrested for mouthing off at him, and it is something that has caused me to keep my mouth shut, even when a policeman is clearly trying to needle me.

Anonymous said...

I know you're using Gates-gate to make a greater point, but I thought I'd note that details of the 911 call were just released:

In the recording of the call to 911, released Monday, the caller, Lucia Whalen, is heard saying that she and another neighbor saw two men pressing on the door of the yellow wood-frame home, but that she was unsure whether the men were trying to break in. Ms. Whalen said she saw two suitcases on the porch.

“I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key,” Ms. Whalen said. “But I did notice they used their shoulder to try to barge in, and they got in. I don’t know if they had a key or not, ’cause I couldn’t see from my angle.”

Ms. Whalen did not mention the race of the men she saw until pressed by the dispatcher to describe them. At that point, she said that one of the men may have been Hispanic and that she could not describe the other.


In the radio transmissions, Sergeant Crowley is heard telling a dispatcher that he is at the home where the possible break-in was reported.

“I’m up with a gentleman, says he resides here, but was uncooperative, but keep the cars coming,” the sergeant said.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. And for the lively comments from varied views. It's possible that Gates' “uncooperative” response, at some deep, subconscious level, may have been motivated by fear for his life and NOT the "upper class arrogance/indignance attributed to him by some--and by the quotations in the police report written by the arresting officer. One problem I have with the repeated assertion that had Gates, as a privileged and highly educated African American man comported himself “cooperatively” or with the "required deference" to the police in Cambridge, the situation would not have escalated to arrest is that it fulfills many people's (regardless of race) deep belief that to "cooperate" definitely prevents harassment, hostility, and brutality.

I wonder if, subconsciously, Gates responded to the officer in such a way called "uncooperative" to insure a crowd of witness, as a life-saving gesture. (That is more witnesses, might mean less likelihood of a beatdown, or worse, of being shot by a frightened police officer). Yet its too easy, given stereotypes about race, class and institutional privilege (as well as class/wealth/racial resentments) too see Gates as an angry arrogant ill-behaved black man instead of a frightened human being trying to stave off pain or fending for his life (emotional, psychic, physical). At least your article allows for Gates’ humanity as well as the officers, which few posts about the incident have done. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a black female academic at an ivy league institution with no criminal history, but a deep awareness of how race and gender influences police behavior, I can say that both my black male relative and I behaved very “cooperatively” and respectfully, deferentially toward a white male police officer during an encounter in which the officer claimed that a relative and I were "jaywalking" late one night on a blocked of street in a racially mixed neighborhood. And yet the officer interpreted our politely spoken statements that we hadn’t done anything illegal, we were just walking to our parked car, as a form of resistance. (Apparently we were “too polite” since we overheard the officer say “we have ourselves some “uppity “N—Grs”). In our case, my relative and I were both not only arrested, but beaten, and I was molested by two of the officers called in for "back up" in a police cruiser out of sight of witnesses. The officers said and did things such as “make sure to put on the gloves” while beating us (that is to leave less scarring--evidence of their abuse,) as well as saying that “we have ourselves some pretty N--Grs, here” and laughing saying "oh, shoot, I think we broke his nose" after beating my relative repeatedly while he was handcuffed, and on the ground.

I want to emphasize for those who may never experience something that traumatic (and thus innocently assume otherwise) that "paying the requisite deference” or being “cooperative” towards a police officer does not ALWAYS guarantee your safety. It depends on the situation and context. Indeed, in some instances it might be interpreted as complicity in your violation. Both my relative and I were found not guilty of all charges that were trumped up by the police, (“disorderly conduct, interference with a police officer, jaywalking”) and the officers were later required to complete some diversity training. But dropping charges, as the Cambridge Police did in the instance of Gates' arrest, never erases the mental, emotional or physical abuse or trauma.

Anonymous said...

a very thoughtful the recent ny times post, I'll just note that anon 3:33 doesn't quote the most interesting part of the story:

"Ms. Whalen, who was calling on her cell phone from in front of Professor Gates’s house, stayed on the scene until the police arrived. A report filed by the arresting officer, Sgt. James M. Crowley, said she told him she had seen “what appeared to be two black males with backpacks” on the porch of the home.

Police officials stood by the report in interviews over the weekend, but on Monday, Ms. Whalen’s lawyer said she never mentioned race to Sergeant Crowley.

“She didn’t speak to Sergeant Crowley at the scene except to say, ‘I’m the one who called,’ ” the lawyer, Wendy J. Murphy, said. “And he said, ‘Wait right there,’ and walked into the house. She never used the word black and never said the word ‘backpacks’ to anyone.”

The Cambridge police did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the inconsistency."


Yolanda said...

Let me be more specific. The suspicious noices heard by the woman didn't include screaming - the child's face had already been destroyed. She heard clanking sounds, called the police, saved a life. It was not the passerby's responsibility to determine whether the situation was dangerous - that is what the police do.

I am a feminist, liberal woman who is obviously opposed to racism. I cannot understand the group-thought that is happening in this case. Gates acted like a big, beligerant baby. He (and possibly the officer - don't know since I wasn't there) overreacted, but I think to call it a case of racial profiling is ridiculous. It is not helping a cause that I fight for every day - that is, preventing real racism / sexism.

Townsend Harris said...

Terrific short essay, TR.

Furthering your remarks about seeking "control," police officers sometimes use a more colorful term for their charge "disorderly conduct". They call it "contempt of cop."

Anonymous said...

You suggest there are several layers of racism here. First, the caller. Yet, the caller never mentioned race. Second, the white police officer was unwilling to appear intimidated by a wealthy black scholar’s rage. How is that racist? When should a police officer ever allow themself to appear intimidated? I don’t follow you. Third, the media plastered photos of Gates in handcuffs and also the police mugshot. These were images directly relevant to the incident. Why use others? Using photos of the actual event doesn’t make the media racist. The fact of the matter is that we cannot know what was going on inside that police officer’s head. Was he simply pissed that his authority wasn’t being respected, something that may or may not have been fueled by racist sentiments? I worry that by describing this as an example of racism, which is far from clear, we might actually be fueling racial imaginaries rather than working to demystifying them.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 11:00 --

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(Imagine TR doing corny Travis Bickle imitation.)

Seriously -- who is the "you" here? Because there are about 25 other people who have commented, and much of what is in the post and the comments adequately addresses what you are asking.

Anonymous said...

i'm talking to you and fail to see the others posts address my own

Anonymous said...

Well Lucia Whalen, who TOLD the 911 operator she saw suitcases and they men might live there and who DID NOT raise the race of the men is now getting threats thanks to follks like TR and many of the commenters here. The trop of the Angry White Woman being the Root of All Evil is so irresistible - why is that?

Tenured Radical said...


be gone with you now -- you are highjacking the post, and further comments without analytical content will be deleted. But I do feel sympathetic to Ms. Whalen if people are being rude, threatening and aggressive towards her, because of course the incident is not her fault -- and even if she had made a mistake, there is no reason to stalk her because of it. That happened to some friends of mine down at Duke, and it was really ugly. Maybe you recall that, Anonymous.

By the way? There's nobody quite like me.

Anonymous said...

Dear Radical, I trust that you will agree that race is a moral artifact, a phantom objectivity that nevertheless acquires the character of the real given that it plays such a profound role in shaping social perceptions and institutions. The fictional reality of race, then, serves as a screen for social fantasy and desire. We not only have to question how racist fantasies fuel the perceptions and practices but also how liberal academics contribute to these imaginaries in ways that may not always be that helpful. The “layers of racism” you identify in your post are far from clear to me. I only asked that you help me understand why all of this seemed so obvious to you. Again, my concern is that by being so ready to read into this event typical, even cliche, scenarios of racial profiling might actually undermine the effort to purge the racial ghosts that continue to haunt us. Even the attorney general, yesterday, noted that there is a tendency among communities of color to see any intervention by the police as an instance of racial profiling, and that the sometime overly aggressive demeanor and actions of law enforcement only target communities of color. Of course, this is not the case, as he noted in his comments. My concern is that us liberal academics may play just as big a role in fueling racial imaginaries (rather than demystifying them) as actually, unambiguous, incidents of racial profiling and discrimination do. But, yet, you accuse me of “highjacking” the post. Is this just your way of avoiding the tough questions - to cast those who challenge some of your statements as blog pirates?

Tenured Radical said...


I understand the point you are making in this comment. And yes, you are highjacking -- which is more than simple disagreement or asking tough questions. Your questions are actually quite trite -- I've heard them before.

Highjacking means that you and I have have a basic disagreement, and that you are being a bully by attempting to make things so unpleasant for me that I am forced to admit you are right to keep you from taking over the comments section of my blog. Once our disagreement with each other has been delineated and expressed you shouldn't keep filling up the comments section by reiterating the grounds of your disagreement and insisting that I respond to you -- or making accusations against my character, or demands for apologies, insisting that I have wronged others, or whatnot.

And by the way, if you are going to engage in a sustained exchange you should also reveal your identity so that I have some idea who I am arguing with.

Anonymous said...

dear radical, i only posted twice. you may be confusing me with other anonymous posts. questions about our own role in fueling racial fantasies are hardly trite. they are deadly serious. until we consider our own role, we can't possibly begin to question that of others. i must admit, you're wonderfully mysterious, cleverly avoiding these questions by casting me as some kind of nagging hooligan. funny.

Tenured Radical said...

Another reason not to be anonymous, even if it means adopting a pseudonym. That is if you really want dialogue, as opposed to just listening to your own voice. I don;t have to work to avoid you dearest: this is a blog, not a cocktail party.

And no, I don't think talking about race and racism reproduces bigotry. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

no, not bigotry. by being so ready to conjure the ghost of racism, we run the risk of becoming nothing more than agitators who fuel the racial fears and fantasies of those who suffer the tangible effects of bigotry.

Tenured Radical said...

I get it now. People like me who "conjure racial fears" are tricking people of color (who would have no perspective on their own experiences) into believing that the bad things that happen to them are racist.

Gosh, I'll have to stop so that racial justice can reign throughout the land and Skip Gates can stop suffering from delusions. Hope and change, baby, hope and change.

Anonymous said...

Dear TR, you’re overreacting. I’m not suggesting that those of us who encourage our students to think critically about race and to be attentive to its lingering social embeddedness are essentially “duping” black people into blaming all their woes on evil white folk. Neither am I suggesting that if we would all just shut up then racial anxieties and conflicts will miraculously disappear from the social arena.

Your identification of “several layers of racism” in the event, I think, was a bit too premature, automatic, and irresponsible, a response that not only forces the incident into a preconceived narrative of racial subjection but also fuels racial fantasies holding that this kind of thing (a policeman who irrationally throws around the weight of the state when his authoritarian ego has been called into question) only happens to minorities. I don’t say this out of malice but out of love (as Cornell West would say), since I’m sure you and I share the same desire to shine the light on the racisms that lurk in the shadows of our society and subject them to critical scrutiny. But sometimes we are wrong.

Tenured Radical said...

And the question is anonymous -- who are "we"? i know who I am -- but who are you?

And my point remains; we disagree. I don't think its an overreaction to read your insistence on having your way in these comments -- anonymously -- and your inability to tolerate my different point of view as condescending and bullying.

I stand by my original analysis.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it interesting how little attention the issue of class -- blue collar policeman vs. Harvard professor -- has received in these and other comments on the Gates affair. Is class becoming the new race -- the elephant in the room that everybody politely ignores?

Anonymous said...

Another interesting point-- the woman whose call triggered this was left out of the men-only beer party last night, even though she apparently wanted to attend and would have brought a unique perspective to the table. Feminist issue, anyone? Or do race and class trump gender?

Jennifer said...


I wanted to just publicly say thank you for this post. It was very thoughtful and provocative in the best sense of the word (which I think is evident by the discussion that has followed on this thread). It certainly provoked much thought and introspection for myself.

Thanks for fighting the good fight and being such a great ally in many areas of social justice.

Anonymous said...

Here is a quote from today's Huffington Post:

"Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has sent flowers and a note to the woman who unwittingly sparked a national debate on race by calling police to report what she thought might be a break-in at Gates' home.

Wendy Murphy, the lawyer for Lucia Whalen, called the flowers a "gesture of gratitude." "

Anonymous said...

Read what Ruth Wisse, a colleague of Dr. Gates, has to say about this episode in the Harvard Crimson:

Anonymous said...

And check out this picture from the White House website of Officer Crowley helping Dr. Gates down the stairs at the White House, while President Obama walks ahead, oblivious:

A metaphor for the way health care reform will work?

guez said...

FWIW, Eric Alterman has an interesting analysis in the Nation:

Apparently some on the left are also worried that we may be conjuring racial fears.

Brian said...


I admire you more than I can express in this blog. Thank you for all that you have written here. it is shameful that certain anonymous folks are bashing you and bullying you for writing this, and acting incredibly condescending towards your concise, insightful analysis. you have voiced things that I have struggled to put together in my head as someone who is aware of his white male privilege. I cannot thank you enough and I can say that you seem like an incredible person with a solid heart and a stunning mind.


Brian said...

By the way, to those who are saying we are "conjuring racial fears"--that is like saying that racism is over, and that if people of color would get over their paranoia, everything would be great.

It is not uncommon for someone with white privilege (or many kinds of privilege) to deny that race (or class or sexuality or gender) has anything to do with a given situation. I think we would rather it didn't--but believe me, people of color wish that it didn't, either. But it does. And our strident claims that race has nothing to do with it, that white people suffer equally at the hands of the police shows that most of the time, race doesn't cross our mind. We have the luxury of claiming a universal perspective--that our experience is the same as those of people of color. But people of color do not have the same luxury. Their voices are racial, biased, subjective, paranoid; of course whites, we are colorblind, open-minded, objective, and rational (read the sarcasm here).

Plus, sorry--leftist academics are not the only ones who might be doing the "conjuring." A little narcissistic to think all thought occurs in the academy

Anonymous said...

questioning whether someone is "conjuring racial fears" is not the same thing as denying that racism exists. and, of course, conservatives also conjure racial fears - the "birthers" are doing this as we speak to stigmatize Obama and thus play up white racist fears of the president.

i'm simply asking that we do not confuse what may not be a case of racism with one that is. because if we do this then we unneccesarily complicate matters and run the risk of becoming part of the problem that we are fighting against. TR suggested the call was racist, that the cop was racist, and that the media were racist, none of which made sense to me. i raise this question in total sincerity. i do not want to highjack the blog, win some argument, or make TR look bad. that's not my intention. i just think that some of us may be a bit too eager to prove our credentials of fighting the good fight by throwing around the "R" word as an explanation. but, in this case, it seems to explain little.

Brian said...

I think that avoiding calling it racism will cause much more damage than calling it racist.

Calling it racism incorrectly (which, I'm not even sure how you would determine that or make that claim) would not do the same kind of harm. But ignoring the issue leaves people of color at the hands of a police force that continues to beat them and imprison them at rates that are ridiculously disproportionate to whites

Anonymous said...

try telling that to the woman who called 911 - she's been called a racist and has received threats. try telling that to the cop who was called a racist and whose family is now under police protection due to threats. try telling that to leon lashley, whose been called lots of ugly things, including an uncle tom. try telling that to gates who has also been called a racist and received threats. throwing around the "R" word, even if incorrectly, has caused plenty of damage. i wonder if you, brian, would be ok with it if you were unjustly called a racist and received threats as a result. would you still make the same argument?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting post & comment thread. Just one question: in what sense does Middletown, CT qualify as an "urban university environment" ?

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