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Monday, July 27, 2009

Walters on the President and the "Gates Affair"

While addressing the limits of Presidential "truth telling," Ron Walters puts the "Gates Affair" in perspective. He points out that black students in and around Cambridge are often subjected to the racism of the police. Walters does not make a point of the fact that racial profiling has been on the Presidents political agenda for some time, which might explain his outrage. Even so, as Walters observes, there are limits to what and how the President must frame things and events.

The President seemed to lay blame on both Gates and the police officer, even though the officer was behaving in a way that fits a pattern when it comes to the white police interacting with black men. Having been in a situation similar to that of Professor Gates, I have a keen sense of what happened.

In May of 1989, I was leaving my office on the 7th floor of MacKenzie Hall at Wayne State University. When the elevator reached the 1st floor, a police officer was standing there. He signaled for the Asian, who was on the elevator when I got on, to pass on by. He then approached me, asking if he could ask me a few questions? I was indignant that I was being singled out. I queried, "why me?" He then stated that someone matching my description was seen on the 8th floor going through offices. I challenged him on this point. I asked how was the person described? He would not say. I then informed him that unless they said the person had a grey beard, I did not meet the description, knowing that is my most distinctive feature. As a result of that challenge, I found myself in handcuffs. It just so happened that a sociology colleague had walked down the steps and was at the scene when the policeman's supervisor arrived.

Still handcuffed, the supervisor informed me that officer was following orders as a result of a report to the campus police. He then went on to provide the discription of the person going through the offices. He was black male about 30 years old, weighing about 150 pounds wearing sneakers and blue jeans. My weight is about 180 pounds. I was wearing Khaki colored dockers and my shoes were loafers. The Sargent who came to the scene apologized, released me, and invited my to come to the station house to hear the report to the police. (I declined.)

In Gates' case, it is very strange if not "stupid" to arrest someone in his own house for breaking and entering. While Gates may have been indignant, Sgt. Crawley was not going to tolerate that attitude from some black man, particularly an "uppity" Harvard Professor.

While the President may have stepped into the briar patch when it comes to the politics of being presidential, he spoke for us all who have to endure the "stupidity" of racial profiling. RGN

Race, Power and the Gates Affair
By Ron Walters

As a Professor who spent a some years both near Cambridge and at Harvard let me testify that student run-ins with the police were not an unusual affair, and at his press conference on health President Barack Obama was trying to say honestly that Harvard is/was no different than any other place in America. Trouble is that he is President and there is a limit to his truth-telling, exquisitely witnessed in a later visit to his press room where he “recalibrated” his initially honest sentiment in which he said that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates. His latest statement distributed equal blame for the incident on both Gates and the arresting office Sgt. Crowley and in one fell swoop, Gates the victim, a distinguished professor and personality, was transformed into Gates the perpetrator with the equal power of the police to have created this racist incident.

I conceive of the police action to have been racist because Gates was provably in his own home which should have eliminated the charge of breaking and entering; he posed no threat to the police given his physical disability and his diminutive stature; and in my own career, I’ve never heard of a white professor being arrested unless they were deliberately protesting, but I have known black professors to have been arrested in their own offices for subjective reasons. So, rather than leave, Sgt. Crowley’s subjective judgment to arrest Gates was more likely to have been made on the traditional racist grounds of using his power to silence a black man, no matter how important, in order to confirm the ultimate authority of white power in society.

Indeed, the transformation of Gates from victim to perpetrator fits the dominant model of power in racial matters that profiles blacks as perpetrators, so that even if he did not break and enter, he somehow ended up with that status. In my book, The Price of Racial Reconciliation, I argue that the voice of the victim of racism has been devalued and the voice of the perpetrators of racism is elevated because of the power they hold over the interpretation and treatment of racial events. This is the curious way in which whites, who by every study I have seen experience racism far, far less than blacks, end up having the dominant interpretation over events. They control the power over the voice that interprets events and control over the resources dedicated – or not dedicated --to resolve them.

The consequence of this unequal power distribution in racial affairs is that there cannot be a “frank discussion” that can meaningfully resolve such issues because, in the power equation, the President must “calibrate” such events from the side of the dominant class. The president, even if he is a black president and probably more so, is part of and amenable to the power structure that influences racial issues because he has to get elected and to govern with the assent of the majority. The only historical link in this chain was broken during the Civil Rights movement when blacks mobilized their own power and imposed it on the political system to confront America with their interpretation of racial events and demand for resolution. This alone forced change, because if left to their devices, neither Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, nor the Congress would have done it.

President Obama, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley will have their beer in the White House, but it will only be a symbolic gesture, lacking the force to confront the monumental crime of racial profiling by the police perpetrators that has locked up tens of thousands of blacks in American prisons. The Senate has just passed a resolution apologizing for slavery I have been reminded. Yes, but that is a crime conceived to have been in the distant past, while the issue of blacks and the criminal justice system is current and fixing it will require current costs.

So, what we now know from the Gates affair about having a black president is that his initial honest sentiment has been interpreted as a political blunder to conform to the political power of the interpreting class, because it dared to privilege the voice of the victim and through him all black men who had been racially profiled. Does this tell us something about the limits to which a black president can go in dealing with race in a majority white country with respect to other racial issues that are crying out for resolution? I believe it does.

Dr. Ron Walters is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. His latest book is: The Price of Racial Reconciliation (University of Michigan Press)

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