Friday, July 24, 2009

Racism maybe not actually gone?

Thanks to another of those terrible "local leaders weigh in on _____" articles, today we get to learn what local officials think about the arrest of Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., a situation that you're probably already aware of.

For this we will turn to the Sentinel's catchily-named article: Gates' arrest draws variety of views.

This is probably going to hurt.
The controversial arrest of renowned Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has sparked a conversation throughout the country, including in North Central Massachusetts, where leaders are offering diverse views about the incident.

Police arrested Gates in his Cambridge home after he allegedly berated them and told them they didn't know "who they were messing with," when they came to his home to investigate a possible break-in.
Well that's not a very complete description of events! You get no context, you get only the officer's side of the story, and Gates is immediately portrayed as the bad guy.

Never mind that this whole incident should have ended the moment that Gates showed ID proving that he was in his own house. The guy was rude!

Apparently we're supposed to believe that it's a crime to be rude on your own property. I have no idea how I've stayed out of jail so long.*
Gates believes his arrest was motivated by race, while some, including Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, who arrested Gates, maintain the professor's belligerent tone, not his skin color, got him arrested.
This part of the tale is actually somewhat annoying to me. I don't know if the arrest was racially motivated or not (though I suspect it was to some degree). But really, it doesn't matter. It's not a crime to be a dick. We also don't know if Gates actually was a dick or not, but for the purposes of argument let's just assume he was.

Okay, enough of the setup, what do local leaders think?
Adrian Ford, the executive director of local community advocate group Three Pyramids, said the answer may lie somewhere in between.

"What I've found in working on these types of issues for 40 years is that we all have subconscious views and opinions that rise to the surface when we're not aware," Ford said Thursday. "It doesn't mean there's a conscious racism there, but this sort of thing is very common."
Yay, a smart person to start off with! I agree with Ford, and this sort of thing is unquestionably very common.

Now on to the dumbassery.
But Westminster Police Chief Sam Albert said police officers deserve more credit.

"I think trends are changing, the job is changing, and officers are becoming more educated," Albert said Thursday.
Well, that's nice. Those things are probably all true. They just have nothing to do with this case. You can be educated and still be a racist asshole or a power-hungry cop. Education doesn't fix those things.

Then the article gets sidetracked into talking not about the case, but about President Obama's statement that the cop did something stupid. How dare the president say such a thing!
The comments from Obama -- a personal friend of Gates' -- surprised most local leaders.

"It shocked me," Fitchburg community activist Yvette Cooks said. "I didn't expect that."

Cooks, an African American, is a member of the city's Human Rights Commission.
Okay, I guess that's nice too? But it doesn't tell us much. I'm a little surprised he weighed in on this too, but I also absolutely agree with him. And really, he only weighed in because he was asked about it at a press conference.

Who else has something to say? More cops? You know they'll give an unbiased opinion, because who's ever heard of a cop reflexively standing up for another cop even when they're clearly in the wrong?
John Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts State Police Chiefs Association, called attacks on the Cambridge Police Department -- as well as Obama's comments -- "premature."

"It doesn't add anything to the situation, and knowing (the Cambridge Police Department) as I do, I suspect they'll address any issues quietly, and not necessarily in the newspapers," Collins said Thursday.
Oh, that's great. Yes, let's please keep important discussions about race and police misconduct quiet. It's not like we'd actually want to do anything about these issues.

Let's add yet another cop!
Chief Bourgeois, like Chief Albert, shot down Ford's assertion of "subconscious" prejudices.

"We train all our officers regarding any kind of racial profiling," Bourgeois said. "Officers approach every call objectively, no matter race, color or religious preference."
Okay, this is just blatant bullshit. There's no way even Bourgeois could believe this, unless he's the most naive man in the world.

Just because you "train" people not to be assholes doesn't mean they won't be assholes. I don't know what sort of training actually takes place, but does anyone with half a brain believe that it can eliminate the problem?

What's more, you can't just train subconscious prejudices out of people. That's sort of what subconscious means. They're not even aware of their prejudices, so how do you expect to train them out of them?

Also from the Obama part of this story, we had this:
Lancaster Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco said the White House "is too far from the situation" to comment.
Now, let's listen to Pacheco comment, because he is obviously right in the thick of things!
But minorities reported they sympathized with Gates, whether or not they considered Cambridge police racist.

"Profiling definitely happens, and I deal with it even in Lancaster," Pacheco, who is Dominican, said. "And it's not just races. Gays and lesbians, in some ways, are discriminated against even more."

When asked whether she has ever felt profiled by police, Cooks did not hesitate.

"Oh my God, yes," she said. "From police, from everybody. It's common."
Dang, that was actually a good comment. What the hell was his problem with Obama commenting? Also, yay our surprised friend Yvette Cooks is back! She's now relegated to the "minorities say this" part of the article, but at least she said something decent. I guess her surprise from earlier was similar to mine.

We'll also give Adrian Ford a little more to say, what with him being a minority and all:
Ford said profiling occurs regularly, and dismissed as "stupid" the notion that America has overcome racial tension by electing an African-American president.
Holy crap Adrian! Didn't you learn anything from Obama? Now everyone is going to get all mad at you for daring to call a stupid idea stupid.

But Fitchburg Councilor at-large Dean Tran disagrees.

"The majority of people in this country have spoken, and voted for an African American, which means that race doesn't play as big a role," Tran said.
Tran is, of course, an irredeemable idiot.

He's actually using the exact same argument that the racists I profiled back in November were using (and will undoubtedly be using in the comments section of the S&E article).

Others have made this argument too. Here's a quote from an email that was sent to the W.E.B. Dubois Institute this week**:
"you can't possibly claim racism, don't you know we have a nigger in the white house?"

Presumably Tran didn't send that email, but he's making the exact same argument.

Never content to stop at saying one stupid thing when there's an opportunity to get even stupider, Tran continues:
Tran, who is Vietnamese, said he has never experienced profiling.

"For me, all this situation does is make me very fearful that police will be hesitant in responding to incidents that involve people of color because they will be afraid of something like this happening," Tran said.
Yeah, I'm sure that minorities (who are of course fully and respectfully served by the police now) will now suffer with sub-par police service because Skip Gates was arrested for being loud at his own home.

Talking about police abuse of power will make the cops scared of doing their job? Only if they're abusive cops.

Dean, you seriously need to take your own Twitter advice and look up "clueless."

Okay, enough of dumbass Tran. Perhaps there's someone out there who's not stupid?
Christina Gonzalez, youth development supervisor at the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, said electing Obama doesn't mean a society has overcome its racial history.

"That's like when someone tells a racist joke and then qualifies it by saying, 'It's okay, I have a black friend,'" Gonzalez said. "You still feel a certain way about those people. It still shows in your facial expression."
Thank you, Christina Gonzalez! What you've said is totally honest and self-evident to all thinking people. Sadly, we seem to be lacking in thinking people right now.

Let's wrap this up:
Ford questioned Gates' vocal reaction and his call for an apology.

"This is an opportunity to create a learning experience, and a leader's job is to influence other people," Ford said. "(Gates) needs to step back, make this issue less about him, and approach it from a less emotional standpoint as a chance for everyone to learn. That's not happening. All we're doing is perpetuating divisions."
Adrian, I think you've got your wires crossed somewhere.

Here's what Gates said in an interview (emphasis mine):
I've received thousands of e-mails and Facebook messages; the blogs are going crazy; my colleagues at Harvard are outraged. Allen Counter called me from the Nobel Institute in Stockholm to express his outrage. But really it's not about me-it's that anybody black can be treated this way, just arbitrarily arrested out of spite.

Now, you could argue that he's making it about him despite saying that, but in the end it really isn't about Gates no matter what he does.

In fact, I'm not even sure that the arrest itself is the really interesting part here. The arrest was absolutely stupid, but whether it was racially-motivated or not is hard to know for sure. Personally, I see it more as another authoritarian cop (and there are lots of those) arresting someone for "contempt of cop" than as a pure racial issue. Of course, minorities are arrested with those sorts of charges at a disproportionately high rate, so there's no reason it can't be both.

Rather, the part that's revealing when it comes to race is not the arrest, it's the reactions. It's the guys sitting behind their keyboards screaming about "reverse racism" and utterly denying that the real problems exist.

It's the total failure of people to appreciate that if they had just come home after a 20-hour trip back from China and a cop started treating them like a criminal in their own home, then maybe they'd get pretty pissed off too.

It's the inability of people to realize that yes, there are cops out there who will arrest you for things that aren't illegal, and will justify those arrests however they feel they need to.

We shouldn't be asking ourselves "was the cop right" or "was Gates a jerk"? We should be asking ourselves what we'd do in Gates' situation. Whether we'd feel that we were being protected and served, or intimidated and harrassed.

More importantly, we should realize that for every Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who gets arrested for no reason, there are a few thousand normal, everyday people (of all races) who suffer the same treatment, but don't have the means or influence to draw attention to it.

Whatever you think of this particular case, it's unquestionably true that people do get arrested for the crime of being black. It's unquestionably true that some cops are keen on showing how "tough" they are by mistreating those they are meant to serve.

If nothing else, Gates' arrest should be a wake up call. Like Adrian Ford desires, and like Skip Gates has said, it's not about Gates. It's about all of us.

* That's a lie. Of course I know how I've stayed out of jail: I'm white and I'm scared of arguing with people who could shoot me.
** Check it out, I have a contact! Take that, journalists!