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Friday, July 31, 2009

Race and Perspective

So the issue with Professor Gates, the Cambridge police officer and President Obama's comments has created quite a stir. Once again, I believe, it illustrates the complexity of understanding the pain of both being treated in a racist manner as well as being accused of being racist. I also find it remarkable that as far as I can tell, the Republican mindset is siding more with the police officer, the Democrats with the professor. What does this reveal to us? I'm not entirely sure. Here's what I think from my vantage point.
I think it's a shame that Gates answered the door in a defensive manner and that the police officers felt compelled to arrest to him. Where in the process the whole exchange got threatening is unclear to me. Yes, police officers have a very dangerous job. Yes, they must enter uncharted territory unsure of what awaits them. But where in this exchange, when asking for Gates' I.D. to ensure that he belonged in the house and was not an intruder as a neighbor had suspected, the police officers felt threatened, is a mystery to me. Why, after showing the I.D., was Gates arrested? Because he yelled at the police? I don't fully understand the law, but if Gates is standing in his house, showing a valid I.D. that proves he actually lives there, and is a bit annoyed that the police are accusing him of being a robber, maybe the police could've understood his annoying behavior and realized that he wasn't a real threat. On the other hand, it also reveals to us the suspicion that people of color carry in their belly and rightfully so. Indisputable statistics reveal that people of color have reason to be suspicious of law enforcement's motives for approaching them. So what am I trying to say?
A nerve was likely hit in Gates when he saw the officers at his door. Again, I am not sure about the tone of the meeting or how aggressive the officers were. But I can admit this if it was my house, and I was being asked to prove that I lived there, and I was already suspicious of law enforcement, I may react with anger as well. Not excusing anyone's behavior, simply trying to understand it. While I respect that the police officers were unsure about what they were walking into, when Gates showed his I.D., what is it that kept them from being the calming influence in the situation?
The case is further complicated by two things that happened in the aftermath. President Obama commented that he felt that the police officers acted in a stupid manner. I must admit, I wish he wouldn't have used the word stupid. It is an inflammatory word from the get go and the press bit upon it. It did make it seem that he was putting the police officers down which created a stir among many. On the other hand, the fact that he was willing to address the reality that people of color are often suspicious of law enforcement agents due to proven track records of racial profiling, made him a hero among civil rights activists. It is too bad that his off hand remarks led to so much anger and accusation. At least he had the where with all to call all parties together, have a chat and try to clear the air in order to move forward. The fact that the press has made SUCH A BIG STUPID deal about the fact that they had a beer while doing so proves to me that sometimes the media really does major in the minors.
Finally, however, the worst thing that has come to light regarding this entire incident is the email that the police officer wrote after a Boston Globe columnist went after him. He referred to Professor Gates as a "banana eating jungle monkey." When confronted by Larry King about the language he used in his email, he apologized and expressed regrets. He then went onto say that he didn't intend to make racist or derogatory remarks, that he treats people with respect. C'mon...didn't intend racist remarks? How do you not intend to be racist and consciously write "banana eating jungle monkey"?
OK...we all lose our cool sometimes and say things that we later regret. The problem however is that sometimes, some of the things we say when we are angry point to a truth that lurks deep beneath the surface of our lives. The fact that he would take the time to write out the offending phrase tells me a little something about the police officer. I believe he is racist. I believe deep in his heart he has a low view of African Americans. I believe that he brought all of that to Professor Gates' house the day he went to check on the burglary call. We can debate for hours whether or not Gates acted in an appropriate manner. But what seems indisputable in light of the police officer's email is that he carries with him some deep seated racism that is hard to explain away. He does admit his mistake, but it's not easily forgotten. I hope at the very least it will cause him to do some soul searching about why those words even came to his mind.
Once again we see how divided our nation is regarding race. White people tend to think that we've come along way and that things are quite good for minorities. Minorities feel the deep sting of old attitudes and perspectives that surface when people get a little distressed. I think the most valuable lesson I walk away with regarding this incident is the fact that people of color worry all the time about being treated poorly or unfairly simply on the basis of skin color. As a white person, I rarely think about my skin color and certainly never feel that being white is a disadvantage.
Can each one of us examine our own minds and hearts and see where the ugliness of racism lurks so that we can face it and address it? Having racist attitudes in our lives yet never being able to name them or address them perpetuates the myth that none of us are racist. We all have prejudices lurking deep beneath the surface. Best to deal with them before they bubble to the top.
I'd really like to hear what people are thinking on this issue. Please feel free to comment.