The farcical arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for “disorderly conduct” and President Obama’s recent “re-calibration” of his initial criticis, in which he accurately concluded the Cambridge police department behaved “stupidly,” reminds us that apparently the only way to transcend racism is to ignore its existence and place blame equally on the victim and the offender.
The police, led by arresting officer Sgt Crowley, arrived at the Gates’ residence responding to a call reporting suspicious behavior and attempted burglary in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood. The blogosphere, infotainment channels and talking head commentators are riled in passionate debate over whether President Obama should have opined that the police behaved “stupidly” for arresting an allegedly loud and vocal Gates, the house’s resident.
The acclaimed professor’s crime was to accuse the police of unequal treatment, based on his skin color and his refusal to not immediately step out on the porch when asked. Despite Gates having already proved his identity by showing the police his ID, they continued to doubt him.
One wonders what chaos would erupt if Obama had explicitly called out the arrest for what it actually represented: stupidity and racism.
Apparently, President Obama’s election has transformed racism into a verbal “Voldemort” – a word that must not be mentioned lest we, as a society, have to actually acknowledge its existence in order to forcefully confront and overcome its pervasiveness.
This hesitation persists despite a very thorough, recent ACLU report submitted to the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination, which concluded: “Racial profiling remains a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the US, impacting the lives of millions of people in the African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities.”
The naive and well-intentioned white commentators on the cable news channel MSNBC discussed Gates’ arrest with two African American commentators, Carlos Watson and Harold Ford, and passionately defended the police, incredulous as to how President Obama or anyone could label the arrest “stupid” considering that Gates “act[ed] in a tumultuous way.”
Apparently when men of colour voice their anger at unequal treatment, bias and hypocrisy, it’s labeled “tumultuous,” formerly known as “uppity,” but when loud, belligerent white male commentators bark it on talk radio, they can make millions for simply “telling it like it is.”
To many, Obama’s bi-racial features and multisyllabic, Arabic name project a globalised, “United Colors of Beneton” poster for a new, diverse America that has “moved beyond race.” Thus, any mention of racism or racial profiling by ethnic minorities, such as Latinos, Africans Americans and Arab Americans, is immediately rebuked as whining victimhood by many commentators – yes, even the progressives – who point to Obama’s election as proof that we now live in an enlightened “post-racial” society.
This erroneous belief continues despite last year’s presidential campaign, where Obama was routinely smeared by a litany of fear-mongering involving racial and religious hysteria, employed by both Republicans and his Democratic opponent Senator Clinton. They associated him with Islam, Palestinians, socialism, Louis Farrakhan and black radicalism. The media pilloried Reverend Wright, a passionate and vocal preacher whose temper and politically incorrect comments were far less incendiary than previous presidential allies such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, yet nonetheless earned Wright honorary titles such as “crazy,” “angry,” and “anti-American.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama played it cool and calm, rarely showing indignation or anger like his opponent McCain, and tried desperately to avoid confronting any mention of racism until the shameful Reverend Wright hazing – and a subsequent drop in Obama’s support among white middle class voters – forcing him to give his eloquent yet substantively shallow “transcendent race speech” in Philadelphia.
However, President Obama bluntly confronted the issue of racial profiling and unequal treatment in his initial, off-the-cuff comment on Gates’ absurd arrest, saying: “Any of us would be pretty angry … that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.… There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”
Yet, with declining poll numbers and a habitual tendency, or perhaps necessity, as to not appear too angry as to worry the middle class white electorate, Obama stated that he regretted his initial words, praised the arresting officer as “outstanding,” suggested both the police and Gates overreacted, and seemingly apologised for helping to contribute to “ratcheting it up” – “it” being the accurate analysis of the police’s conduct as “stupid” and the pressing need to have critical dialogue on racism and racial profiling. President Obama continued, “I could have calibrated those words differently.”
Perhaps President Obama should heed the advice of his Attorney General, Eric Holder, and “re-calibrate” law enforcement policies, considering both Obama and Holder have publicly stated ending racial profiling is a priority and that profiling is “simply not good law enforcement.”
In addition to its ineffectiveness, racial profiling forcefully reminds many Americans that despite their academic achievements, Harvard degrees, publications or scholastic achievements, their skin color continues to reward them with “reasonable suspicion” and unequal treatment by law enforcement. For example, the New York City police department’s 2008 statistics on their “stop and frisk policy” showed a record 531,159 stops – over 80% of which were of black and Latino New Yorkers.
If President Obama’s multicultural America truly wants to “transcend” racism, then it must be willing to “ratchet it up” and at least confront the existence of a policy that that frequently torments her citizens of color. In the case of Gates’ arrest, we must acknowledge the racial undertones provoking the event, as evidenced by the polarising viewpoints and reactions from minorities who cite such police conduct as familiar occurrences and others who sometimes, despite the best of intentions and without malice, fail to see blatant racism staring them in the face.
At the very least, we all should be able to call it “stupid.”
WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/