Friday, July 24, 2009

Let's Talk About Race, Baby! Part 1

It’s been said that there are three sides to every story…yours, mine, and the truth.

In America the issue of race, much like a social disease, is one of those things that people would wish would just go away. But like herpes, it’s a chronic pathology with occasional outbreaks which remind the body public that there is an underlying problem in our society.
Its also one of those subjects—like certain diseases—that has been studied, explored, analyzed, and scrutinized; one would be hard-pressed to reject the notion that just about anything and everything that one can say or write about the issue has been done so. So why is it that, such as in recent weeks, whenever we are reminded that the country has unfinished business insofar as confronting the legacy of its volatile racial past that we fall back into our usual, predictable roles? Take for example the arrest last week of noted Harvard scholar and preeminent expert of African-American history, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The resulting public opinion polls, blogsophere commentary, and radio/television talk shows revealed nothing surprising; opinions were divided mostly along racial lines.


Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., shortly after his arrest and the dropping of the "disorderly conduct" charges

While many African-Americans—especially males—could relate to Gates’ experience, whites generally were to quick to defend the actions of the police officers who arrested Gates, some embracing the idea that Gates' behavior solely controlled the outcome of the situation. Other opinions go so far as to label Gates a "race-baiter" with regard to the incident. The problem is that very few individuals are able or willing to think or consider perspectives that are not influenced by their own experiences.
Just as men and women tend to think and perceive experiences differently, so too do African-Americans and whites. Many blacks, myself included, have war stories about our less-than-pleasant, legally questionable treatment at the hands of the police. Our experiences are often such that we know that a threat to be arrested for “disorderly conduct” is nothing more than punishment for failing to acknowledge or for questioning a police officer’s authority. For many of us, strength of personality or propensity to assert our civil liberties in the face of questionable situations involving the police are offenses punishable by arrest. It’s pretty much like when certain government agencies or officials use the phrase “national security;” it’s a catch-all phrase used to maintain autonomy in the face of an equal, challenging, or superior authority, in this case being us--the public whose very taxes pay for the police to serve and protect us. And in a few of the cases that I’ve personally been privy to, arrests are often justified by some colorful embellishments of the truth on police reports (and no, this reality does not in any way mean to imply that every African-American has only negative experiences with the police).
For many whites—unless they are known criminals—the experience of being pulled over or of being confronted by a police officer tends to yield different results, as well as different perspectives of the police altogether. This is obvious by the way in which whites tended to assume to role of devil’s advocate for the policemen involved in the Gates incident. This point is further supported by the way whites generally reacted to the words of President Obama, as he opinioned that the Harvard police "reacted rather stupidly." This is not to say that the officer in question, Sgt. Jim Crowley, did not act within the scope of his authority…after all, neither you nor I were there to witness events as they unfolded. But Crowley’s authority as a representative of the law, his unblemished service record, and his police academy responsibility for teaching police how they can avoid racial profiling not only give him nearly unfettered credibility in this case, but also entrench already divided opinions on the issue. Throw in the black historical experience in America, and sides are often chosen up without the benefit of reason.

Sgt. Jim Crowley, after the arrest of Gates

According to opinions flooding the blogosphere, most whites generally believe that the entire episode was blown out of proportion, and that blacks are being overly sensitive. And it's probably a sure bet that blacks feel the same way over whites' heated responses to President Obama's remarks....that they're simply being overly "sensitive" to someone's opinion. Could Gates have been as belligerent and unruly as the police report states? Sure. Is it possible for some officers of the Cambridge Police Department to have embellished the actual events leading up the Gates' arrest in a light favorable to them? Quite possible. For both blacks and whites, we see our perceptions of race mostly through the prism of our individual and collective experiences, which is the only source of "truth" that matters for most or us.

To Be Continued...

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