When I am at home, I get my news through the internet and NPR. At the moment, though, I am visiting my mom and since she watches television I have been seeing the TV coverage of this Henry Louis Gates debaucle. It is rather alarming. I have also been watching it unfold on Facebook, where most of my white friends who are saying anything about it are saying "why are people so quick to cry racism," and most of my black friends who are saying anything are saying "this is clearly racist."
I was not there and do not know either of the men involved. Neither does Barack Obama, but I really can't fault him for saying that the police acted stupidly. They did. According to the police report, so did Gates. I don't think that admitting that both parties behaved inappropriately is at all problematic. The assumptions that one man behaved in a way that was racist or that the other behaved in a way that was disorderly or crazy are where the problems start.
Here is what I see:
1. Gates responded in an aggressive manner to the police.
2. The police responded to Gates' aggression by arresting him.
3. The arrest would not have been made if Gates were a white man of the same status, but that is because
4. A white college professor would not have responded that way to the police, and in fact
5. The police wouldn't have been called in the first place.
So to say that race does not play a role in this situation is absurd. I think a lot of (white) people might want to argue that the situation had nothing to do with race until Gates made it about race with his (alleged) "this is what happens to black men in America" comments; I would disagree with that. This is what happens to black men in America.
Part of our difficulty in accepting this case as a manifestation of racism or racial bias is that we--Americans, both white and black--have an antiquated notion of what racism looks like. Our ideas about racism are left over from the 1960s. We like to believe that we live in a "post-racial" society because we don't kill black men for looking at white women anymore. Our idea of what a "racist cop" would look like is a white cop looking at a black man on the street and thinking to himself, "I'm gonna get that n-----." Racism doesn't look like that anymore, at least on a large scale. It is more complicated, systemic, and institutionalized, and the people who benefit from it or demonstrate it cannot be labeled as categorically "bad" anymore. Day-to-day racism now looks more like what happened in Cambridge: a respected and seasoned officer responds to aggression from a black man as more highly disruptive and threatening than he would interpret aggression from a white man; he makes an unnecessary arrest. And then both white and black people, who do not want to admit that we have racial problems in this country that are so complicated and deep-seated that they will take hundreds of years to resolve themselves, jump to conclusions leftover from a different time in our cultural history: either, "this man arrested a black man who didn't deserve to be arrested, therefore, he is a bigot," or, "this man previously gave CPR to another black man; that is not what a bigot does, therefore, race played no part in this."
Here is where I think the crux of the problem lies: white people have been taught that to be a good person means to be "color-blind," which, we later learned if we spent any time with black people, means pretending that everyone is white. We think this is a good thing because we think it means that we are refusing to accept stereotypes; what we don't understand is that much of what we have been taught to see as "stereotypes" are simply evidence that there is, in our country, a black culture that is different from the white culture. For some reason we don't want to admit this-- even though we know that it is important to "celebrate" the cultural differences between people of European descent and, say, recent transplants from India. We want to ensure that Indian immigrants don't lose their "rich culture" as they become a part of the United States. That would be bad, it would be racist. And yet we still cannot allow black culture and white culture to exist separately and respectfully of one another.
I have this poster in my classroom that attributes this quotation to Ralph Ellison: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize and let them so remain. This is not prophecy, but description." Michael Eric Dyson, in his commentary on the Gates situation, wrote that Gates was essentially arrested for "talking back, and talking black, to a white police officer." That is what makes this an issue of race. Race is culture. Black culture is one strand of America. Refusing to recognize it and let it remain does not make us "color-blind," it makes us whitewashed.