Friday, July 24, 2009

A learnable moment

In the matter of Henry Louis Gates Jr. v. Sgt. James Crowley and the Cambridge Police Department now being heard in the U.S. Court of Public Opinion, the groundwork for a settlement may be taking place between the central parties.

President Obama, whose comments on Thursday may have made things worse, today performed an extraordinary pivot toward conciliation in the case.

“This has been ratcheting up, and I have contributed to that ratcheting up. I should have calibrated those words differently,” he said in the White House. “Because of our history, because of the difficulties in the past, African Americans are sensitive to these issues. …

“My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a ‘teachable moment,’” he said.

The president closed after mentioning that there’d been some talk of Gates, Crowley and Obama sharing beers at the White House; the president and the opposing parties are said to be comparing schedules right now.

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Before we got to this point — before there was any talk at all of finding common ground over lager & pretzels — the matter of Gates v. Cambridge PD had basically stalemated over dueling accusations, he said-he said claims and counterclaims. There’ve been clashing allegations that certain statements about what was said between the two men were out and out fiction. Who got it right in this matter, of course, depends on who you talk to.

Whether Gates or Crowley was unassailably right, whether either admits to having fabricated some aspect of their account of what happened in a home on Harvard Square, is almost beside the point.

The bigger issue is the indisputable fact of racial profiling in America, and the chain of sorry assumptions and rash actions that combine to make racial profiling possible in the first place. What happened to Professor Gates is a sadly universal event for far too many African American men in this country.

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The police in the city of Cambridge and on the campus of Harvard University have a record of this.

Dr. S. Allen Counter, a Harvard neuroscience professor for 25 years, told The Associated Press that he'd been stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers in 2004 in a case of mistaken identity. Counter said they threatened to arrest him when he couldn’t give them an ID.

“We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if Professor Gates was white,” Counter told The AP. “It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened.”

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In The New York Times on July 23, Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU, presented an excellent overview of recent situations which indicate the Gates incident is more of a reality than one might think in Massachusetts’ academic realms, and in Massachusetts generally.

“Consider the 2003 case of King Downing, director of the National Campaign Against Racial Profiling for the ACLU, who was detained at Logan Airport when he refused to provide identification to a police officer. Downing sued, saying he was the victim of racial profiling, and a jury found that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. …

“Maybe the Cambridge police officer was instead following the example set in the case of Jason Vassell, a former student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with no previous criminal history. Vassell, an African-American, was recently charged with aggravated assault and battery in the stabbing of two men inside his dormitory. The incident started when the two men, both white, reportedly smashed Vassell’s window while hurling racial epithets at him, then entered the building and attacked Vassel. The two white attackers got off lightly, while Vassell is facing serious jail time.

“Or perhaps the Cambridge police thought that they could just ignore the law. That’s what some 40 percent of 247 Massachusetts police departments have done in response to a state law that requires them to track the race and gender of people stopped by police for alleged traffic violations, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety.

“Those departments were found to have apparent racial disparities in traffic citations after a year-long study of citation patterns throughout Massachusetts. Rather than comply with the requirement to track all stops, however, nearly half of Massachusetts law enforcement agencies have simply disregarded the law.”

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Do African American men feel that special pang of existential pain when they’re needlessly interrogated by the police? You’re damn straight we do; so sometimes we’re on more of a hairtrigger reaction time about such events than might be warranted. But that reaction doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. It’s history; cause & effect; a malign stimulus provoking a possibly life-threatening response.

This is our latest teachable moment. It’s a teachable moment for President Obama, one he’s already made the most of. It’s a teachable moment for white Americans, who are learning (many apparently for the first time) that racial profiling is no hardship myth, or the latest cynical strategy of the aggrieved, but utterly, everyday real.

It might be a teachable moment for the Republicans and conservatives in general.

There’s no teaching Rush Limbaugh anything.

It should be a teachable moment for those Massachusetts police agencies who’d choose to ignore the law, and then assume the role of the deeply offended when they’re called on it.

But as racial profiling returns to the front burner of the national attention span (for a hot minute), what’s unknown right now is what may be most important: whether we as a nation accept that, on all race matters, we’ve got as much to learn as we have to teach.
Image credits: Gates, Crowley: Stills from CBS News. Counter: . Jason Vassell: Bob Stern/The Republican.

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