Thoughts On Gates-gate


Though it pains me to do so, I’m going to dip a toe into some sound byte coverage. (In case you’re wondering, the water kind of sucks. Case in point: some drivel from the Christian Science Monitor’s blog which has Bill Cosby weighing in on politics.)

The latest scandal over diction is President Obama’s comment that the arresting officer in the Henry Gates incident.

Here’s the CS Monitor with just the basic facts (Skip to the jump for my analysis. It’s blockquote time.):

According to the police report, police received a call that two men black were trying to break into Gates’s house. In fact, the two men were Gates and his driver, who were trying to open the front door, which was jammed.

Both sides have suggested that the other was argumentative. The police report says Gates eventually became verbally abusive, accusing the officer of suspecting him simply because he was black. He was arrested soon after and placed in jail for four hours.

Cambridge police officials claim that the incident was an unfortunate escalation of wills. “I think what went wrong is that you had two human beings that were reacting … and cooler heads did not prevail,” said Cambridge police spokeswoman Kelly Downes.

And here was Obama’s take, when asked for it at a health care presser:

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.  That’s just a fact.

This certainly doesn’t merit the coverage it’s garnered, but it’s certainly fair for the police to take offense to kinda/sorta being called stupid by the Most Eloquent Man in the World. Especially given that we now know there was a black officer at the scene, who since has backed up his white partner’s handling of the situation.

Here’s Obama’s clarification quip, which I find to be a very reasonable reaction.

I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.

And, finally, the only reason any of this is worth talking about.

The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America.

I won’t get into the issue of racial profiling, which was the soapbox Obama was halfheartedly trying to mount. What I’m more interested in is how the issue highlights the broken nature of racial discourse.

Surveying a brief sample of bloggers and commenters, some people all but accused Obama of siding with Gates just because he was black. Others thought the cop was clearly at fault, citing damning statistics on racial profiling though they didn’t shed any light on this particular incident. Most think it was wrong for him to speak out on the issue of race at all. Taken as a whole, it seems that the defining feature of post-Obama America is that we’re still terrible at discussing, and therefore dealing with, race.

Just look at the incident itself.

The black man got into an argument with the white cop because he suspected racial profiling (something he probably runs into a lot as a black man living in an upscale neighborhood with an elite job and social circle).

The issue escalated because the white cop took offense to that accusation (one he probably gets a lot from black suspects).

At best, similar situations lead to unspoken tensions between black suspect and white cop. At worst, these tensions escalate.

While I don’t think Obama should’ve said anything about this particular incident (and regardless of what he says, I’ll bet he wishes he hadn’t), in the abstract, the mindsets that lead to racial profiling and similar incidents are worth addressing. Nine times out of ten, I’d bet that it’s not the racist attitudes of one side or another that causes the problem, but how each side’s racial baggage enflames the other’s.

For black people, getting wrongly accused of wrongdoing because they’re black is one experience they bring to each encounter. I wonder how often this causes otherwise unprejudicial white people to become overly defensive and prone to backlashing against that mentality.

Maybe this unease is the true challenge of post-racial America.

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1 Response to “Thoughts On Gates-gate”


  1. 1 Jason July 27, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I have HQ audio of the Henry Gates 911 call, Moderator, If you are interested


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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