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July 30, 2009 / JV

Gates Affair About More Than Just Race

It is with happy feet and a grinning heart that I introduce my first guest blogger, Anthony Kelley. Kelley is a scholar, brilliant in mind and spirit, whose interests span philosophy, black political thought, and critical pedagogy. He was a regular contributor to his alma mater’s newspaper, and since he doesn’t write nearly enough on his own blog, he’s come over to the black scientist to share his perspective on the protracted Gates incident.

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It is no secret that mainstream media often mask the complexity of an issue in order to reach a wider audience and, in turn, increase profits. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest and the subsequent media frenzy is no exception. It seems unnecessary to delve deep into the debate at this point. A week later, the main arguments are well known. For a couple of particularly insightful, opposing viewpoints, look here and here. But despite the wide-spread commentary, there seems to be several gaping holes in the mainstream analysis. Here I’ll point out a couple:

First, any commentary that does not include a class analysis is incomplete. The facts that Gates is a wealthy, well-educated individual and that the arresting officer represents a lower-economic strata are undeniable. Given these facts, I am not completely convinced, as is often the case with the black elite, that when Gates was faced with perceived racial injustice, his response wasn’t “Oh, how dare he perpetrate racism against me” but instead “Oh, how dare he (i.e. a white man of a lower economic status) perpetuate racism against me (i.e. a wealthy black man). The former of which indicates a righteous indignation in the face of injustice, whereas the latter merely reveals the deep class divides that make some of us feel entitled to preferential treatment while the rest of our people suffer.

Second, the black community’s response to Gates’s arrest tells us something about the state of black political solidarity. People were justifiably upset at the apparent racial injustice while acknowledging that Gates may have exacerbated the situation by antagonizing the cop. When one of our own is attacked, we will speak out and defend our community. Now, this is not to suggest that there is (or that there should be) an uncritical, wholesale acceptance of Gates and his behavior; I do not know many black people who are not at least willing to entertain the idea that Gates might have over-reacted. What most black people share, though, is a nearly preternatural willingness to speak out on behalf of other black people, whether they be culpable and arrogant teenage boys in Jena, Louisiana or class elitist Harvard professors on a first-name basis with the president of the United States. This point is even more important when we consider the critical scrutiny under which notions of solidarity have been under recently. Given the purported “post-racial” society, the task of strengthening black political alliances in the face of anti-black racism is increasingly obligatory. Gates’s arrest represents a unique moment to think about race and the way it works in our everyday lives as well as think critically and creatively about ways to strengthen black political solidarity.

Despite these observations above, the fact that black men and women (and all those in between) continue to suffer at the hands of police violence remains unchanged. Though Gates’s arrest does offer a “teachable moment,” we should never lose sight of those who suffer the brunt of police aggression. Our efforts should not be limited to speaking out on behalf of “the least of these,” but the core of our efforts should nonetheless be directed towards building a long-term sustainable movement to end police aggression, not simply at providing individual blacks with immediate relief. So whether or not Gates is arrested and whether or not he and a white police officer is invited to the White House for beers by a black president, we must still fight. And, I trust, we will.

[Thanks to the Scientist for giving me a space to voice off on this issue. Good looks sis.]

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4 Comments

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  1. ROCHELLE / Jul 30 2009 6:07 pm

    No one is talking about the lie that this officer told on his police report. He said that the neighbor said that it was 2 black men breaking into the house. she (the neighbor) said that 2 men was possibly breaking into the house. This police officer committed a felony and NO NEWS COMPANY BE IT PAPER OR MEDIA OF ANY KIND IS REPORTING THIS.

    WHAT SAY YOU?

    • the black scientist / Jul 31 2009 6:37 pm

      well.. the thing is, in the police report, crowley says that when he arrived at gates’s house, lucia whalen (“witness” although she was calling for an older woman) told him there were two black men inside. unfortunately we have no record of whether or not this happened although it’s highly unlikely considering in her phone call, she says repeatedly that she didn’t get a good look at the men. she says at one point (in her phone call) that one of the men looked like he could have been “hispanic” but she wasn’t sure. so while i don’t believe she would then say two black dudes broke in when crowley got there, and while i wouldn’t put chips on his honesty, we can’t prove he lied in his report.

      still jacked though.

  2. Anthony Kelley / Aug 1 2009 4:53 pm

    Word, I think it’s important to determine, to the best of our ability, whether or not Sgt. Crowley lied in his police report (It’s important to note, though, that there is a difference between lying and stating non-truths; the former implies malicious intent while the latter may simply be a case of misinformation).

    But the matter of whether this incident is a case of racial bias extends beyond the initial 911 call. Surely a case for racial profiling can be made when a frightened woman with white privilege (I hesitate to call her “white” due to all the recent coverage emphasizing her Portuguese heritage; what is undeniable, however, is that she does enjoy some degree of white privilege simply by virtue of the color her skin) is alarmed when two black men are budging open a door to a private residence. But what is also a case of racial injustice is when a police officer is more likely to arrest a black man for behavior for which a white man wouldn’t ordinarily be arrested. Screaming at a police officer is not a crime. I don’t know about you, but I have personally witnessed white people get into the face of white police officers and those same officers will turn the other cheek, humble themselves and leave without a confrontation. But a black person, on the other hand, is subject to lose their lives is they act similarly.

    All of that is just to say that regardless of whether or not the initial 911 call was an instance of racial prejudice, the subsequent arrest of Gates was undeniably influenced by Gates’s race and the arresting officer’s racist biases.

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