Let’s Talk about Race in America!

No, really, let’s talk about race in America.

As you’ve probably heard, a prominent scholar by the name of Henry Louis Gates Jr. was recently arrested, in his own home, for disorderly conduct.  As Gates is a black man, this arrest has half-halfheartedly reinvigorated our national debate on racial profiling and colorblindness.

So, what happened, exactly?

Everyone seems to agree on the following:  Gates was coming home after a trip to China.  His front door was jammed, and so he asked his cab driver to help him force it open.  A passerby saw the two men forcing their way into a house, and called 9-1-1 to report what, to her, looked quite a lot like breaking and entering.  The police arrived to find Gates inside the house.  Some sort of argument ensued.  Gates left the property in handcuffs.

Now, what happened between the police arriving and the police arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a more subjective matter.  Gates says that he repeatedly demanded the arresting officer’s name and badge number; Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, says that Gates couldn’t hear said badge number over his own shouting.  Gates says that Crowley abruptly called him out of the house with no explanation as to why; Crowley says that Gates followed him out of the house, refusing to “calm down.”

In any case, the fault is more the officer’s than the professor’s.  Even if Gates had been hurling racial invective, screaming at the top of his lungs, and gesticulating wildly, that would not have justified arresting him.  A police officer who cannot handle rudeness in the line of duty shouldn’t be a police officer, plain and simple.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who cannot handle rudeness in the line of duty is basically unemployable.

Once Crowley knew that Gates was in his own home, and not someone else’s–once he knew that the 9-1-1 call had been a misunderstanding, and that there was no danger to anyone’s person or property–that should have been that.  Crowley made a bad decision, regardless of what he says after the fact.  The troublesome, unanswered (probably unanswerable) question is whether that decision was racially motivated.

The business of Gates being mistaken for a burglar in his own home is, in and of itself, the stuff of sitcoms–just a silly misunderstanding for which no one in particular is at fault.  But would Gates have been arrested if he were white?  There is no intellectually honest way to get around that question, nor is there any particularly satisfying way to answer it.  No one, as far as I can tell, is accusing Sgt. James Crowley of being a nefarious, deliberate racist.  If racial prejudice did factor into the officer’s behavior, then it did so in a split-second, subconscious manner.  Because, you know, that’s how prejudice works.

The New York Times recently published a sort of faux-dialogue between “Ralph Medley, a retired professor of philosophy and English who is black” and “Wayne Martin, 25, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is also black.”  We need to know that these interviewees are black, apparently, but we’re not comfortable with needing to know it.  The information is deemed necessary, but its necessity is shameful, tucked away.  Wayne Martin is not a black official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, but rather “an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is also black.”  Perhaps this is the same mysterious process of syntactical alchemy by which colored person can become a racial slur, while person of color can become a perfectly acceptable alternative thereto.

The aforementioned Times articles says:

The way Mr. Martin described himself, he could be the very definition of a “post-racial” American. “I have children I’m trying to raise not to see race,” he said. “I’m beyond the whole black-white thing. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Yet Mr. Martin could not think of any other way than racism to explain what had happened to Professor Gates. He is fascinated by the story. On Wednesday, he changed his Facebook status to: “Wayne Martin is wondering when it became illegal to be angry at a law enforcement official.”

In other words, there is no way to make sense of numerous events–in the past, in the present, and undoubtedly in the future–without taking race into account.  Being colorblind or attempting “not to see race” is no solution because, as this story may or may not show, racial prejudice doesn’t usually take the form of conscious vitriol.  Prejudices, by nature, usually go unacknowledged and unexamined.  So pretending that our prejudices don’t exist will make them more harmful, and will also leave us terribly confused as to our own motivations.

We are quite simply not “beyond the whole black-white thing” yet.  We’re not there today, and we probably won’t be there tomorrow.  If we do get there, eventually, it won’t be by pretending to be colorblind.

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