Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moving on from Cambridge

I have to admit, I have become very weary of hearing about the Gates incident in Cambridge. I hate the vitriol that this discussion causes and makes people instantly react and assume that those involved acted in bad faith and were out to "get" the other one. I don't like it because it so often turns into an argument about the veracity of claims or the impugning of character that draws on entire histories of caricatures of peoples positions on certain groups. "Cops are all racists" and "There 'they' go again, playing the race card." Yet, in placing these caricatures on both the sergeant, it is a convenient way to avoid talking about the underlying historical role that these forces play. Instantly, we (the public) assume a narrative that we believe to be the case and impose it on the situation.

How is it that an officer that had taught a class on racial profiling ends up being caught in a media firestorm over a racially-charged arrest? On the one hand, some say that it is "proof" that there was nothing racial about this incident whatsoever. Or, that a black officer supporting the sergeant's arrest must be evidence that race has no role whatsoever in this. On the other hand, there are those who argue that really, the cop could still harbor subconscious racism and "had Gates been white, this wouldn't have happened."

What I think we need is a greater understanding of each other and knowing that we all make mistakes, but also the vast majority of act in good faith. I find this debate tiring. Not because I don't believe that race is important in shaping the experiences of all people, particularly in the United States. Nor do I believe that we should just say that everyone made mistakes and this was troubling, and then move on. In some way, the mistakes were perfectly predictable. The fact that racial profiling happens a far greater proportion of the time than it should provides the basis for mistrust. The fact that the officer teaches classes on it doesn't mean that the situation might have been handled differently had Gates been white. At the same time, it doesn't take away the fact that police officers face dangerous situations and, on a regular basis, have people lie to them. That it seems like Crowley escalated the argument rather than trying to diffuse it was a mistake, but it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. The fact that Gates was, by all accounts, heated didn't help the situation but, again, it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. I have little patience for people who say, "I would have done this or that in the same situation." One, it is impossible to tell—I have been surprised by the way I have reacted in many situations; and two, just because I would react in a certain way does not mean that every person acts differently in a situation does so in a way that is unreasonable or not understandable.

That is why, in all of this, I find this surprise press conference by the President refreshing. First, he admits that he didn't help the situation—he admits that he did something wrong. Let me tell you how much of a relief that is after President George W. "I make no mistakes" Bush. There can be no understanding and dialogue if people are not willing to admit that they would, if they had the opportunity, to do or say things differently. But second, and I think more importantly, Obama doesn't give in solely for political expediency. He could have apologized and said that everything was blown out of proportion; instead, he said:

...where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other, and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.

In other words, I did something that I wish I hadn't done and didn't help the situation. At the same time, let's not pretend that there is not a situation of minority profiling/discrimination that requires dealing with because I did something I wish that I hadn't done. It should also mentioned that the consequences of this racial discrimination and profiling can be truly tragic for the police as well. Obama's final statement:

There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all, (which) I disagree with. The fact that this has become such big issue is indicative of fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.

speaks to this.

Ultimately, I am not arguing that Crowley or Gates should have necessarily acted differently. It is in fact my very point—I know nothing about the situation other than how it fits into a larger narrative that requires assuming bad faith on one or both sides of the incident. By playing into that narrative and personalizing a structural situation into these two individuals leads to nothing but mistrust and hot air that ultimately gets us nowhere. I truly hope, if Sgt. Crowley and Dr. Gates are both interested in moving race relations forward—as much evidence seems to indicate—that they can then work together over beer, with the President, to actually make this a more constructive dialogue.


chris said...

"I have become very weary of hearing about the Gates incident in Cambridge."

Me too! They need to act and resolve this sooner rather than later..

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