Saturday, July 25, 2009

Conservatives and the Gates Affair

I work part time as a pastor at a church near downtown Minneapolis. A few months ago, I went to the church one Saturday evening to do some work. The church has an alarm system and I tried to disarm it with my code only to realize that the code did not work. After some time, I was able to use another person's code to shut the alarm off. Unfortunately, I was not able to prevent the police from coming to the church.

I came out of my office to see a white cop looking into the church. I came forward and explained the situation to him. He took my ID and went to his squad car for a few minutes. Everything checked out and he joked about not trying to set the alarm and went on his way.

In the back of my mind, I had feared such a situation because I am a black man. I don't know why I felt that way, but I did. I feared the police would assume that I was breaking into the building. The church has had a history of breakins and I was worried that the policeman would think I was another thief.

Fortunately, that did not happen. Maybe the cop noticed I casually came out of the office, or that I wasn't dressed like I was stealing something from a building. Whatever it was, he "profiled" me and judged that I wasn't a threat.

I share this experience because I think that every black man has had that fear running in the back of their head when they encounter a white policeman. I think it comes from a dark history between the police and the black community. The police have not always been a friend to black males and so I think our antennas go up.

It has been interesting to see how white conservatives have reacted to the whole affair with Henry Louis Gates. For many, he is just one more in a long line of liberal race baitters. Here is what Jules Crittenden had to say on the matter:

It’s getting a little awkward. It turns out Crowley might not be some lunkheaded Irish bigot cop after all. It’s looking like he might be the kind of white cop … if it is actually permissible for white men to be cops in post-racial America … that Gates, Obama, etal, might consider a paragon, an example for all.

I hate to moralize, but this is the kind of thing that happens when you make snap judgments and start busting heads and taking names based on nothing more that racial prejudice. Turns out that when you judge people by the color of their skin, great injustices can result.

Crittenden then goes into a long spiel about the struggles that white men must face because of affirmative action. He talks about the past history of racism, but like a lot of white conservatives, seems to think that it is just something in the past. If a black man complains about how they were treated, well they surely must be lying.

Now, I think what happened between Mr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley is not clear cut as I thought it once was. Crowley isn't some bigoted cop. But I also know that like Professor Gates, I would also be a bit apprehensive around a white cop because I don't know how things will transpire. It's an automatic reflex based on history. Yes, it might be the result of an overactive imagination, but it has it basis in a reality where black men have been mistreated simply because they were black.

I may disagree with President Obama on many things, but I can understand why his first reaction concerning the whole incident was one of saying the policy "acted stupidly." He was responding from a visceral feeling that I think is in the hearts of many of black man: that some policeman is going go overboard on them because of their race.

Maybe it was the wrong thing to say. But I can understand why he said it.

BUt all that has been lost on some conservative and policemen. Here is what retired NYPD cop Bob Weir had to say:

If anyone is a racist in this confrontation, it is this obstreperous professor who evidently feels that his loft academic status and his friendship with Obama not only put him above the law, but give him a platform to inject "color" into every situation. Make no mistake about it, if Crowley were black and followed the same protocol, Gates would have recognized that there was no opportunity for a public spectacle, so he would have behaved properly.

Speaking of behavior, President Obama showed his own lack of class and judgment when he said the Cambridge PD "acted stupidly." To make such a sweeping statement of condemnation after admitting that he didn't "know all the facts," is beneath the dignity of his high office.

What is disturbing here is that not only is Gates tagged as a racist, but the President is accused of not having all the facts when in fact, Mr. Weir as well as Mr. Crittenden and others also don't have the facts. We have two stories about the incident and both sides rush to believe the their side is the true one.

But in reality we don't know the facts at all. That will come in time, but people are rushing to fill in the blanks.

I have long believed that liberals tend to be too sensitive on racial issues, to the point that no one can talk about them or they become excuses for people of color to indulge in victimhood. But I also think that conservatives tend to be to dull to the experience of blacks in America and the scars that we still carry with us concerning the legacy of racism. White conservatives want to believe that this was all done a long time ago and that we African Americans should just move on. But the fact is, those scars take a long time to heal.

In short white conservatives want us to "get over it." Maybe in time we will, but it isn't that easy. You can't just undo 400 years of history in a few decades.

My fellow conservatives might think I'm just whining when I share my fears concerning white cops, but they are real for me just as they might have been for Mr. Gates and millions of other African American men. I wish for a moment that they could understand that.


Mike at The Big Stick said...

We spent a long time talking about this one the other day on some of the other blogs I visit. I think the general consensus seems to be that the real meat of the case is simply whether or not the police were right to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct. Now if people want to claim race factored into their decision, that's their choice, but I think it's a bit of a stretch.

I guess somone could say the neighbor was potentially racist for calling the police and wouldn't have if the men were white, but again, it's a stretch.

As for any race-related debate prior to the point of Gates' arrest, I call BS. The police were doing their job, plain and simple.

Just out of curiosity, i ran this scenario by my two kids, ages 10 and 14. I left out the race-factor and just told them the rest of the story. My oldest daughter's first statement was, "He should have thanked the police, not yelled at them." My younger daughter said, "When I get two warnings and i'm still bad I go to time out."

When I explained the racial component to them it didn't really seem to affect their opinions at all. Now keep in mind that these are two kids that are pretty much oblivious of race. They have black and white friends and don't even really think about race that much. Maybe it's hard for them to understand the cultural baggage of an aging black college professor, but i sometimes think naive answers are the most truthful.

I think it's a bit ironic that the people who want us to empathize with the fear that black people have of the police completely discount any fears white people might have of black people. It's like only one side is justified in their fears. I find that hard to swallow.

Thomas Joseph said...

I said this over at another blog, and I'll make essentially the same comment here:

President Obama, who has always gone to great lengths to craft his image, seemingly chose this episode to speak off the cuff? Why? Doesn't he realize (rhetorically asked) he has the power to make or break careers and lives? Why couldn't he have said: Professor Gates is a friend of mine, so I cannot offer anything else at this time since I do not know the facts of the case, other than to say that my friend is a good man and everything will come to light in due time.

That would seem to have been a very easy thing to say, and would have allowed him to take a much clearer case to push a "we still have a ways to go in racial relations" speech when it presented itself.