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Prejudices Past and Present

22 Jul

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an eminent African American scholar at Harvard University, was arrested last week on charges of disorderly conduct and racial harassment. Yes, you read that list bit correctly – Prof. Gates was charged with racially harassing the man who thought he was breaking into his own home. And the disorderly conduct? He got angry and yelled at the police officer who thought he was breaking into his own home.

The comedy of errors began when Prof. Gates had difficulty opening his jammed front door. Consequently, Gates “opened his back door with his key and tried unsuccessfully from inside his home to open the front door. Eventually, Gates and his driver forced the door open from the outside….” A white woman passing by observed this activity and called the police to report a possible break-in. Up to this point, the story isn’t too bad: a woman sees activity that looks suspicious and reports it to the police.

I have to wonder, though, what made her suspicious? Was it the fact that Prof. Gates was a black man trying to enter a home in a neighborhood that – I’ll take a wild guess here – is not predominantly populated by black people? Would she have responded the same way to a white man trying to unjam that same door? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but they’re questions that every white person in the USA should consider soberly.

Moving on, the suspicion of unlawful activity was reported, and the police dispatched an officer to the scene to investigate the claim. Unfortunately, the officer they sent appears to have attended Charm School with Genghis Khan. The long and short of it is that Gates and the officer had words, and the officer over-reacted by arresting the professor. The Cambridge police made the right call and dropped the charges yesterday. Still, it was an ugly chain of events, and one can’t help thinking that race played no small part in the ugliness.

President Obama commented on the incident this evening:

What’s been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now, so… it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago. Here, I’d get shot.

But so far, so good. They’re — they’re reporting. The police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate what happens.

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

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’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

… [W]hen I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.

And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

It’s been less than a year since the American presidential election campaign was marred by racism. To bring the matter closer to home, I hear people of several ethnic backgrounds express a variety of ethnic, racial, religious, gender and other prejudices every day. I hope I don’t express any such things myself, but, to be honest – I probably do sometimes. I’m still trying to unlearn a lot of what my culture has taught me about race, gender, religion, etc. It will be a lifelong battle that will require me to constantly measure myself as I am against the self that I want to be, and to keep striving to reach that ideal. If Americans are serious about living up to our national ideals, we all must wage similar battles – individually and corporately – to remove both past and present prejudices from our lives and society.

– the chaplain

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18 Comments

Posted by on July 22, 2009 in politics, prejudice, society

 

18 responses to “Prejudices Past and Present

  1. athinkingman

    July 23, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Interesting read. The situation is very similar in the UK.

     
  2. Frank DN

    July 23, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Racism is very much alive and well in this country. Did you see the interview with Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan a few days ago. Buchanan actually sat there and declared this is a country of white men, built by white men, for white men. Other races haven’t earned the right to be on the supreme court. It was so far over the top racist it would have been funny if he wasn’t dead serious. I know that I have made progress on a personal level and that some parts of society as a whole have as well but there are many many more who haven’t. It’s really pathetically sad.

     
  3. the chaplain

    July 23, 2009 at 7:03 am

    AThinkingMan:
    It seems that all cultures and societies have developed nasty prejudices of one sort or another. Humankind has made some progress in this regard, but there’s still much more work to be done.

    Frank:
    That Maddow-Buchanan interview was disgusting. You’re right about how over-the-top Buchanan was. If he had been auditioning for the role of the 70s sit-com character, Archie Bunker, he would have won the spot hands down.

     
  4. Lifeguard

    July 23, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Two things…

    I’m assuming, like most people, that Professor Gates travels with luggage which I’m assuming he carried with him into his own home. Why would a neighbor, who saw a man pull up to a home in the back seat of a car driven by someone else, get out of that car with luggage, assume that this person was a burlgar?

    Secondly, I’m assuming, like most people, that Professor Gates has photographs in his home. Photographs of HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY which would likely be in plain view of anyone who set foot in his house including police officers who are supposed to notice little details like this.

    Bottom line, as the President put it last night (perhaps a bit inartfully), there’s no reason to arrest the man once you’ve determined that he is in fact the owner of the home. Personally, I think the cop was probably annoyed that Professor Gates got offended by the whole thing and decided he was going to teach him how to “respect the law.” Honestly, I think if Professor Gates had been white, the officer might have gone through the exact same procedure, but I highly doubt he would have arrested him.

     
  5. PhillyChief

    July 23, 2009 at 11:11 am

    I found myself writing and writing in response to this so I’m sorry but it was so long I created a post of my own.

    The super abridged version – Prof Gates is a pompous ass if he said, “you have no idea who you’re messing with” to a cop, and his denial of access to special privileges believed afforded to those of his position and financial state because he’s black is hard to shed a tear for when there’s probably 1000s of victims daily of more serious racism. Furthermore, I find it repugnant that he’ll be rewarded for being a champion against racism for possibly being a pompous ass, and that’s not the role model anyone needs.

     
  6. the chaplain

    July 23, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Lifey:
    I wonder if the cop would have responded at least a bit differently to a white guy who was mouthing off, as you suggested. That’s the kind of question our society needs to examine. If there are differences, why do they exist?

    Philly:
    I agree that Gates may have exacerbated things by getting angry and mouthing off at the cop. I’m pretty sure that both Gates and the cop said things that would have been better left unspoken. I also agree that there are probably much more serious, injurious acts of racism going on as I type this. Still, the cop was in the authority position and should not have over-reacted by arresting Gates.

     
  7. Postman

    July 23, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Chappy,

    You said, “If he had been auditioning for the role of the 70s sit-com character, Archie Bunker, he would have won the spot hands down.”

    The difference is that Archie Bunker, over the years, proved to be capable of change in his attitudes. Buchanan? Not so much.

     
  8. Kagehi

    July 23, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Sigh.. Unfortunately the “solution” most places insist on attempting is “diversity training”, or some variation there of. On the plus side.. in places like my job, you get a lot of different people. On the down side:

    1. Your diversity doesn’t count unless you belong to some specific group, and then only those attributes “of” that group that are assumed to be true are respected. I.e., being a sub-group of white means they can offend, harass, or annoy you, all they want, with stuff that offends you personally, but if you where say.. Muslim, or just Middle Eastern, they might think twice about putting the store PA system’s music on “Christian Rock”.

    2. Mixed messages – We are supposed to understand how other people do things, but its shallow to the point of stupidity, because you are also not allowed to talk to them about a) why they do it, b) whether or not it makes sense to you, or c) suggest that their view is undermining your ability to do your own job, or enjoy things that they stick their noses into.

    3. No one has to change, everyone just has to stick their head in the sand and pretend that a) nothing is wrong with anyone else’s views, and b) especially if those views are themselves racist, classist, or otherwise “directed” towards the assumption that ***the holder*** needs special treatment, privileges, opportunities, days off, etc., but you, not being in the right “group”, not only don’t get such special rights, you can be denied even a request for one day off, because your interests are not “covered” by “diversity” issues.

    In other words, it pigeon holes everyone, reduces differences to sound bites, denies any ability, or need, for anyone to understand anything (just ‘respect’, which is to say, don’t say anything about it), and actually “promotes” continued racism, anti-semitism, etc., because the people given the special rights get told over and over that they “deserve” them, even when they happen to not do anything to earn the right from anyone else’s perspective, and all the guy working his ass off to cover from some lazy, or otherwise “impaired” co-worker, sees is some ass being allowed to get by with things they wouldn’t, because they happen to be the right race, religion, or social status.

    And that is just at jobs. The same has been shown to be true at colleges. When rules are imposed to “prevent” people meeting, yelling at each other, stating their cases, right or wrong, etc., all you get is 20 groups of idiots, all isolated from any opinion other than their own, all convinced their opinions are right, and none of them having a damn clue what anyone else thinks, desires, or holds an opinion on. You get people like Buchanan, as Postman mentions, because of rules to promote a sort of “don’t rock the boat” mentality, that diversity rules, hate speech bills, and the like promote. Why? Because it allows them to go through life never having to ***ever*** deal with people that fall into the gay, black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, Pagan, or what ever group. You can continue to spout, listen to, and echo chamber opinions about people, go on national TV and promote pure bullshit, and get by with it, because you never have to “confront” the reality of people that don’t share the same opinion. Actually having one of them do so is a “hate crime” against the racist, by their detractors, for calling them a racist asshole. (seriously, if this wasn’t what was intended, why the hell include speech in so many of the bills they try to pass, as “part” of what constitutes a hate crime?)

    Archie Bunker, is what happens when you have “no choice” but confront the real world, and recognize that the differences of opinion are “usually” mole hills, of which some idiots not only make mountains, but insist you then have to use carpet bombing to remove. And, those differences that are not mole hills, are usually **held** by the morons that would nuke an ant hill, to keep from having to get ants in their salt shaker. Disproportionate insanity, in reaction to something that no one else would notice, care too much about, or need to become militant over, if not for the fact that they happen to be living “next to”, or, from their delusional perspective “in”, the damn ant hill.

     
  9. cl

    July 23, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    I have no idea what happened in that house, but presuming the officer was on the over-reactive side, I’ve been on Gates’ side of the fence plenty of times. There are some serious crooked and troubled police officers in this world. When I was about 14, we got put in the back of a cop car for skating a curb in an unlit, unused section of a parking lot. As I was sitting there, news of a heroin overdose in the area came through dispatch. I made a comment to the effect of, “Somebody’s OD’ing on heroin and you’re more worried about me skating a curb?” The officer didn’t like that. Among other things, he took me home and lied to my dad, telling him that I swung on him. I eventually got my dad to believe that I did no such thing.

    Other times, cops come up and remark that “they used to skate back in the day” or ask us questions about our gear – or suggest that we go somewhere else because we’re in a dangerous neighborhood (as if we don’t already know). Just depends on who you get, I guess. Blanket statements are rarely ever appropriate.

    Either way, I fully expect people of all agendas to exploit this incident for their own ends.

     
  10. Lifeguard

    July 23, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Just for the record, I agree that Gates is a pompous ass. I just think an old white guy being a pompous ass to a cop would have been dismissed as a crotchety old grandfather type figure by the cop and I’d bet the cop would have apologized or possibly not even followed him into the home– certainly I don’t think he would have arrested him. Coming from a black man, though, I think the cop thought he was being disrespectful and needed to be curbed. White guy? Crotchety. Black guy? “Uppity.”

    Why? Because people are unaware of the subtle differences in the ways they treat and think about African Americans.

     
  11. PhillyChief

    July 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I’d submit, Lifeguard, that perhaps because he was black, the cop felt he could get away with teaching the pompous ass a lesson. That’s not the same as a discrepancy between crotchety and uppity, but more of a poor estimation of what the repercussions of his actions would be, sort of like how you’d be more inclined to tell the 90lb guy in the theater to stop talking on his cellphone than the 250lb beefy biker.

    I think it should be chalked up as an ‘all fail’ and let that be the end of it.

     
  12. (((Billy)))

    July 24, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Chappie: I tried three times to comment on this, but just could not keep my comment to a reasonable length. So, as you can see above, I did a full post.

     
  13. DAVID

    July 27, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    WHAT I WOULD DO TO BE A FLY ON THE WALL AT THAT ALTERCATION….NEITHER STORY ADDS UP COMPLETLY. I WOULD NOT PRETEND I KNOW WHAT ITS LIKE TO BE A “BLACK MAN IN AMERICA” AS MR GATES PUTS IT. HOWEVER, I DO KNOW WHAT ITS LIKE TO LOCK MYSELF OUT OF MY OWN HOME, HAVE THE POLICE CALLED ON ME BY A NEIGHBOR, GET SMART WITH THE OFFICER INVESTIGATING THE INCIDENT, AND END UP IN A SQUAD CAR AS A RESULT. AND FROM TWO DIFFERENT OFFICERS POINT OF VIEW MR GATES WAS A LITTLE LESS THAN COOPERATIVE. BUT I FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT IF IN FACT AN OFFICER ASKED SOMEONE FOR SOME ID AND EXPLAINED THE SITUATION ANYONE WOULDNT JUST TOSS AN ID AT THE OFFICER, AND BE ON WITH THEIR DAY. UNLESS, MR GATES WAS PREVOKED. IF THE OFFICER WAS LESS THAN NICE IN THE WAY HE ASKED FOR THE ID OR WHATEVER WHAT AM I MISSING?

     
  14. Cephus

    July 27, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    The fact is, Gates got what he deserved. Yes, the neighbor made an honest mistake and called the police, but I’d rather have a neighbor who actually cared about the people who live around him than just shrug their shoulders and let the guy next door get robbed. The cop came out and did his job, Gates couldn’t provide proper identification immediately, but eventually did when they got into the house and that’s where it should have ended. The police would have said sorry for bothering you and walked away, but Gates got abusive. They were entirely within their rights to arrest Gates, there was nothing racist about it, it was a response to Gates’ behavior.

    That’s really the problem, there are far too many blacks (and it applies to other minorities too, but some blacks seem to have a special skill) who feel that anything that ever happens to them is because of their skin color. If they don’t get their way… everyone is racist. In some ways, I guess you can draw parallels to the typical theist “if you don’t let me do what I want, you’re discriminating against me” nonsense.

    I’d really love to see Obama slap Gates in the face and tell him to grow the hell up, he’s just giving blacks a bad name. That’s certainly what I’d do in his position, politically bad idea or no.

     
  15. PhillyChief

    July 27, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    WHAT I WOULD DO IF PEOPLE COULD FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN OFF THEIR CAPS LOCK…

    Anyway, I agree that he should be thankful he has neighbors who keep an eye out and give a damn and also, if I were Gates, I’d probably laugh and thank the cop as I handed him my licence, making a comment like, “boy, I sure feel good about living around here seeing such a fast and thorough response from the police.”

     
  16. cl

    July 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    I think it should be chalked up as an ‘all fail’ and let that be the end of it.

    I like that.

     
  17. Lorena

    July 28, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Thank you for the post, Chappie. I am going to write my take on this issue on a post later this week.

     

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