Friday, July 24, 2009

The Gates issue

I have been thinking about the Henry Louis Gates incident since I learned about it on Wednesday night, during Obama’s press conference. Now, we all know (or should know) that there is a problem with racism in this country. Stephen Colbert’s line that he doesn’t see color parodies this problem perfectly, in my opinion. Or to put it another way, I think that some African Americans have made progress (including, obviously, President Obama) but all experience racism and most are still stuck in poverty.

All that said, though, Obama should have identified what happened in this case immediately. The Jim Croce song said “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape”; it could have said you don’t yell at a cop. It’s true that a black man yelling at a cop even in Pittsburgh or in one of our suburbs like Brentwood might get a beating and a trumped up charge to cover the beating. In Cambridge, Massachusetts it gets you arrested on disorderly conduct (and you consider should yourself lucky). And it doesn’t really matter what color you are in the sense that if you yell at a cop something bad will happen to you. If you are black it will probably be worse than if you are white, but it will happen. So to some extent this was the usual story of a person getting frustrated with a policeman and making the mistake of thinking he can express his frustration.

So fine, let’s use the incident to remind us that African Americans still experience racism, but let’s not hold it up as an example. Unfortunately, for better or worse the stupid person in that particular was professor Gates.


laura said...

"if you yell at a cop something bad will happen to you."

Maybe, as members entrusted with public safety who have been through (hopefully) years of training in dealing with all kinds of situations, the onus should be on police officers not to respond to expressions of anger with physical responses.

Heck, we expect ADULTS IN GENERAL not to respond to anything lesser than "fighting words" with a physical response, and when they do, they are often charged with assault.

So why are police officers the ones who get a break for acting in a way that we don't expect non-trained adults to respond?

I am not saying your statement I quoted is incorrect, but rather, that maybe "making the mistake of thinking he can express his frustration" should not be a mistake to begin with, and stupid or not, the officers are the ones who should be held to a higher standard, not Gates.

EdHeath said...

I have gone back and forth on this in my mind. The real world situation to me is that you never yell at a cop, no matter who you are. It's just good advice.

But you are absolutely right that that is an unfortunate situation. And the fact that there are racial overtones in the real world (ie that blacks could well expect to be beaten if they yelled at a cop, if not shot) makes it so much worse. And the fact that Obama will lose some support from having initially taken "Skip" Gates side is also painful. The one thing I will say I have tried to be consist on is that no matter who you might say acted stupidly in this situation, it is a wake up call that our country has much more to do about race relations.

We shouldn't have needed yet another reminder.