Alternate title: Jesus H., Fellow White People, Shut Your Mouths and Use Your Brains for Five Minutes, Would You?
So, I can’t stop thinking about Henry Louis Gates, Jr., being arrested at his own home last week. Very short version: He got home from a trip to China, found his front door jammed, let himself in the back, and then worked with his driver (also a black man) to open the front door. A white neighbor* witnessed their efforts to unjam the door and called the police to report a suspected break-in. Cops showed up when Gates was already inside the house, and well, details are hazy — not surprisingly, the police report differs substantially from Gates’s statement — but basically, Gates produced i.d. proving it was his house, he and the cop argued, argument moved outside, and Gates got arrested on his front porch for disorderly conduct. (The charges were dropped today.)
Here’s the thing: Even if every word of the police report is gospel truth — up to and including Gates using the words “yo momma” — the man did not commit a fucking crime. And why was the officer even there long enough for the argument to escalate? How is there any possible response to proof that the resident is the man accused of “breaking in” other than, “I’m sorry about the misunderstanding, sir. Just being cautious. Have a nice day”? That’s even if the guy is being a belligerent prick about it — because I’m sorry, who wouldn’t be a belligerent prick after getting off a long flight, coming home to a jammed door, then finding a cop in your living room accusing you of trying to steal your own shit? I sure would.
There are so many layers to this story and so much we don’t know, which means lots of people are trying to be all devil’s advocatey about it and suggest that Gates bears responsibility for making matters worse. But, even without knowing all the details, I just cannot imagine a scenario in which it was legal or ethical to arrest the man. It seems to me that at the very worst, Gates acted like an asshole, which is not illegal in any state. And I simply cannot imagine how a middle-aged, academic white man in a polo shirt would have ended up in the back of a fucking squad car, short of actually taking a swing at the cop. That’s the issue here. Compare Gates to a white man of the same age, wealth and accomplishments — i.e., someone who would be viewed, without question, as having more power in this society than a white uniformed police officer — and the idea of the cops arguing with and eventually arresting him for expressing anger at being accused of burgling his own fucking home is simply asinine.
Pam Spaulding offers a few questions for discussion:
- Would a white professor have been subject to the same suspicion by the woman who called in the report of a break-in?
- While a white prof wouldn’t have yelled “I’m a black man in America”, say he had said something to the effect of “is there some reason you’re standing in front of my home?” and proceeded to engage angrily in the same manner. Would he be arrested?
- Would a white prof react as strongly to the police officer’s initial inquiry since he would not be a victim of racial profiling?
- Did Dr. Gates’s explosion of anger in his own home warrant an arrest? Is this a manifestation of the “angry black man” phenomenon, where the lower threshold of public anger by black men is seen as more threatening than it would be for a white man?
- Was the fact that Gates threw down the “don’t you know who I am?” card a mitigating factor?
Let’s take those one by one.
1) Maybe, maybe not, in this particular instance. This woman could be a stone cold racist or she could be a watchful neighbor who only wanted to do Gates a good turn, or anywhere in between — perhaps not consciously racist but steeped in the same racist society we all are, so she reacted more strongly to the sight of two black men trying to force the door than she would have if they’d been white. It’s possible that she only had a clear view of the driver, not Gates, and that’s why she didn’t recognize her neighbor. It’s possible she would have done the exact same thing if he had been white. It’s possible she’s already been by his house with a big plate of cookies and a heartfelt apology, and Gates has assured her it wasn’t her fault. Even if all that were true of this one woman, though, it’s hardly evidence that we live in a post-racial society — yet people keep arguing as if it matters to the big picture whether she’s a white supremacist or just Gladys Kravitz. It doesn’t. It’s really not hard to believe these two things at once: She did not necessarily do anything wrong or overtly racist, and yet we live in a racist society where white people call the cops on black people for being black all the goddamned time, which is relevant to this conversation regardless of what’s in this one person’s heart. Why are people so concerned with defending her, to the exclusion of acknowledging that Gates was a victim of racist bullying and a bullshit arrest either way?
2) No. See what I said above. I’m picturing my dad 15 years ago here — not an academic (in fact a high school drop-out), but a successful white businessman, short, medium-build, same age. Now, my dad in particular probably wouldn’t have gone ballistic — he pisses himself talking to customs agents at the U.S./Canada border — but let’s say he did. Let’s say he reacted the way, oh, his youngest daughter — who goes apeshit when asked to produce a receipt on her way out of Best Buy and would end up on a no-fly list if she were ever stupid enough to say what goes through her head while enduring the uselessly invasive pageantry of airport security — probably would. As in, “What the fuck is this? You’re in my house with a gun, demanding to see i.d.? And now I’ve shown you i.d., and you’re still fucking treating me like a criminal instead of apologizing and getting the fuck out of MY HOUSE? I want your name and badge number. This is BULLSHIT. GET OUT.” My cute little white dad would totally not get arrested for that. The cops might not like it — nobody likes getting yelled at — but even if they wanted to put him in his place, they would think twice about the kind of connections wealthy, middle-aged white men often have, about what would happen if he sued, about whose side their superiors would be on. They would be operating in a culture where wealthy, middle-aged white men who yell a lot and berate people just trying to do their jobs are feared and fucking respected, even when they don’t have good reason for it. Which, in this case — if the officer said anything other than, “Sorry about the misunderstanding” after i.d. was produced — our imaginary white man actually would.
3) Probably not. I mean, as I indicated above, I am a white person who has big, big problems with the attitude that “If you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t mind being [searched/questioned/asked to show i.d./otherwise treated like a possible criminal].” I can rant for an hour straight about having to show i.d. to buy cough medicine. But then again, I do it. And personally, I’ve never had an unsettling encounter with a police officer — which is a function of both luck and white privilege, as well as my generally law-abiding nature — so I wouldn’t be primed to assume the worst.
So if a cop showed up in my house, I imagine I’d mostly be bewildered. As a woman, if I were alone, I’d be wondering whether he was really a cop and if I was about to be attacked by a strange man in my home. If he had his gun drawn, I’d be scared shitless. But once he explained why he was there, and it became clear that there was no physical threat, I would cease to be frightened. And that part is pure white privilege — I have no reason to be frightened of an actual cop who is actually there doing his job (as opposed to actual cops who drop by to rape you), when I’m not actually accused of anything. This is simply not true for people of color. They have a damned good reason to remain anxious, just as all women have a damned good reason to be anxious when strange men show up at their door — not because all cops are violent racists or all men are rapists, but because enough are that you can’t fucking afford to assume there’s no potential risk to your safety and/or liberty.
But given that I would indeed cease to be frightened once I realized what was going on — oh, somebody thought I was breaking into my own place, I get it — chances are, my good-hostess conditioning would overwhelm the righteous civil libertarian in me, and I’d get my i.d. without a fuss. If the officer did respond with, “OK, sorry about the misunderstanding, ma’am,” I would probably even get fucking solicitous. Oh, no problem, I understand, you’re doing your job! Better safe than sorry! This is because, as a white person, I would have no reason to assume there was anything going on beyond a simple misunderstanding. If someone called 911 because she thought I was breaking into my own place, there would be zero doubt that the color of my skin was not a factor. And if I handed the officer an i.d. showing that I’m a resident at this address, it is highly unlikely that he would push the matter any further, because one i.d. is more than enough proof for most white people to trust that this other white person is who she says she is. If it were a simple matter of a cop doing his job, based on a neighbor’s unfortunate misunderstanding, it would be over in five fucking minutes for a white person.
And if it weren’t, well, that brings us to Pam’s next question.
4) No, it did not warrant an arrest (see answer to question 1), and yes, the “Angry Black Man” phenomenon is certainly at play. And here is where a bunch of white commenters, even at blogs where I expect people to get it, are really making my head explode. As Shark-Fu puts it:
Now, here’s what always happens when a charge of racial profiling-based ig’nance is made – folks will talk about giving the officers involved the benefit of the doubt even though they didn’t give Professor Gates an inch even after he produced two forms of identification in his own damn house proving that they were all standing in his motherfucking house…other folks will blame Professor Gates for getting testy while being accused of breaking into his own damn house even though he was being hassled about whether or not he had the right to be in his own damn house which he proved was his house when he produced two forms of identification whilst standing in his own damn house…and still others will defend the officers involved no matter what evidence is revealed because they think Professor Gates was acting uppity and uppity negroes deserve the wrath of the law when they let themselves get uppity about being harassed in their own damn houses and since when do they let black folk have houses, don’t they know that makes them uppity?!?
The problem (well, one of them) is, too many white people imagine the scenario going pretty much as I described in answer 3. Cop says, “Neighbor thought you were breaking in,” you say, “Oh, ha, it’s my own house, here’s my i.d.!” and the cop apologizes and goes away. Because A) that actually is how it would be likely to happen for us, and B) the words “a neighbor thought you were breaking in” would not, in themselves, be loaded. Your first thought might be, “That’s weird,” or “Maybe she didn’t recognize me because I was wearing a hat,” or “Wow, what a fucking busybody!” But your first thought would not be, “Oh, of course she saw a white person forcing the door and assumed it was a crime in progress. Jesus Christ. Welcome home.” That would, in fact, be a completely unreasonable response for a white person, on account of how NOBODY EVER ASSUMES WHITE PEOPLE ARE CRIMINALS JUST BECAUSE WE’RE WHITE.
But if I were a black person, especially a man? You’re damn right I’d hear “Someone thought you were breaking in” differently; from the word go, the entire exchange would have a different tenor to it. And it is entirely possible I’d go from zero to righteously pissed off in that instant, the same way I do when somebody hits an anti-feminist bingo square and then gets all, “What? Why are you so angry, when all I said was [B3]?” White people need to acknowledge that even if we wouldn’t get immediately testy in that situation, there are some very good reasons why a black man would. And then we need to acknowledge that this culture routinely casts black men as criminals, as apes, as ready to kick ass or kill at a moment’s notice — so when a black man does get testy, white people will often perceive it as a direct threat and (over)react accordingly. Which, you know, doesn’t help the situation. “I would act differently, so if he got that angry that fast, he brought it on himself” is not a sufficient fucking analysis here. You would act differently because you have been treated differently your whole life.
And even if you did act like an arrogant jerk for no good reason in your own home, you would probably not get arrested for it, because that right there is part of the different treatment. This is not rocket science.
5) This one depends on whether Pam’s asking if it actually mitigated the cop’s behavior (no) or merely blurs people’s perception of who’s to blame (yes). I mean, “Do you know who I am?” is always an asshole statement, but A) if anyone’s earned the right to say it, surely it’s Professor Gates; B) as I said earlier, being an asshole is legal; and C) go back to that scenario featuring my dad in the role of the falsely accused. When we look at fiftysomething white guys in very nice houses and very nice clothes, surrounded by very nice things, we see power — or at least, potential power. We see the likelihood of friends in high places, of golfing buddies who are cutthroat lawyers, of his kid going to private school with a senator’s kid. We see entitlement. Which means we see a guy who could fuck us up — legally and financially, not physically — if we gave him reason. Gates, as it turns out, is pretty much that kind of guy — the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to arrest without a reeeeally good reason. But because he’s black, this cop didn’t think, “Hmm, I wonder if he’ll have a disproportionately good lawyer, and this will end up all over the papers, and it’ll all be a total clusterfuck that’s so not worth the satisfaction of cuffing him to show who’s boss right this second.” However dickishly, Gates was pretty much warning him of just that outcome — an outcome anyone with half a brain could have envisioned if he did, in fact, know who the professor was. Or if the professor had been white.
Gates gave an interview to the Washington Post today that’s well worth a read. “There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them,” he says, continuing:
This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it. [Major snip.] I think that poor people in general and black people in general are vulnerable to the whims of rogue cops, and we all have to fight to protect the weakest among us. No matter how bad it was going to get, I knew that sooner or later I would get to a phone and one of my friends would be there to help.
That’s the thing that’s different about this story. Gates knew it was utter bullshit, knew his rights, and knew the right people to get himself out of there and make a huge stink about it. But this sort of crap and much worse happens again and again and again to black men who also know it’s bullshit but don’t have the power to do anything about it. And on the relatively rare occasion when it gets media attention, my fellow white people cling to the just world theory and scramble to explain what the guy did wrong, how he brought it on himself, how different choices would have led to a different outcome, how it’s not a matter of institutionalized racism but individual behavior.
You’d hope that this sort of example would be a wake-up call, but you’d be wrong. If I see one more person saying, “Well, if he’d just X instead of Y, none of this would have happened,” I am going to fucking lose it. A 58-year-old man who’s accomplished more than most of us could hope to in three lifetimes was arrested at his own home for being angry that a police officer walked in there and treated him like a criminal. And even liberal white people respond by saying, “Hey, it happens to us, too,” and Monday morning quarterbacking this specific instance out the wazoo, instead of acknowledging that this kind of bullying — let alone brutality — by the police is fucked up, and it waaaay disproportionately hurts people of color. The people who think “He should know better than to talk back to cops” is an appropriate response here remind me of people who insist the solution to rape is self-defense courses for women. Yeah, it’s nice to know, in theory, how to defend yourself, but the real problem is rapists — and a culture that doesn’t do nearly enough to discourage them — not victims’ lack of preparation. Here, the problem is racism and a culture that willfully ignores how deeply embedded it is in our institutions, in our expectations, and in our analysis of how just this world really is, not individuals getting angry with police officers. And every time we try to reduce an instance of police racism to an isolated incident in which “fairness” and “objectivity” somehow demand that we blame the victim, we’re contributing to that very fucking culture.
*Found out after this went up that she wasn’t a neighbor.