Black And White
August 1, 2009 § 4 Comments
My attitude toward the arrest of Henry Louis Gates is simple: the cop was wrong, and Gates overplayed it. The situation was more complex than Crowley being a racist. My take is that Crowley is guilty of racial profiling (like most of us) and that he has a very thin skin when it comes to being accused of it. When The Daily Show’s “senior black correspondent,” Larry Wilmore, did a bit on how thrilled Gates was to be in spotlight for being arrested-while-black, I laughed. Gates is a prima donna. (Yes, I know: this is not illegal.)
I didn’t feel the need to add my two cents to this story until I read Bob Herbert’s column in The Times today, headlined Anger has its Place. Columnists don’t make up their own headlines—if they did, this one would be considerably more forceful. Herbert is very angry and disgusted with the response to the story. He writes, “Most whites do not want to hear about racial problems, and President Obama would rather walk through fire than spend his time dealing with them.”
I was taken aback by that. Allowing for hyperbole, I think he’s right. Still, my feeling about this as been one of cautious agreement with the President: there’s so much to be done, this is a crazy country with a lot of racists in it, including large numbers of people who seem to have no idea that they’re racists, and simply doing his job well might be the best thing he can do for black America. And of course a part of me thinks: he’s not only the President of black America. If he loses support and becomes ineffectual because of morally correct, passionate statements about race, what’s in it for me?
Yet I respect Bob Herbert and it makes me sad that his feelings for Obama have soured. It worries me. It reminds me of my own anger about Obama’s caution in other areas—anger that I have heard from lots of Obama supporters in recent weeks. What I don’t want to happen is for people to let their disappointment with the President get in the way of keeping up the pressure on the White House and Congress.
I knew going in that Obama was emotionally conservative, a conciliator, that his color and charisma blinded people to his very evident politics. It blinded them in different ways, depending on whether they were Democrats or Republicans, Conservative or Liberal, sentimental idealists or rabid right-wing loonies. That was inevitable. Race is a hot button and charisma circumvents reason. I hated Reagan more than Nixon because he was charismatic: to me it was anti-charisma, disgust-making. And I remember very clearly seeing Bill Clinton on TV for the first time, in a debate with other primary candidates, and knowing he would win because he was so charming and slick (and smart). I was both charmed by him and scornful of others, equally enthralled, for thinking they were responding to his honest passion. If he’d been a conservative Republican, I would have hated him for it. As it was I didn’t fight my attraction, but felt a little dirty.
When Obama was elected and I was excited in that swoony way so many of us were, a radical friend of mine expressed contempt for my “fantasy” that Obama would be any different from other politicians. I didn’t think he would be, actually. But I thought a Democrat in the White House, elected on a platform of change, and a black man elected President were both such good things that a little tipsiness sparked by his personal magnetism was okay. If Clarence Thomas had been elected President—to give a shudder-making example—I would have been horrified but also kind of fascinated and thrilled.
So I find myself ambivalent. Not about the election—I’m still glad we have Obama instead of Clinton (forget McCain). But am I still an Obama supporter or simply someone who will vote for him next time?
Not long ago, I was walking down Bleecker Street after dark, and passed through a group of black teenagers coming out of a subway station. One hit me (deliberately) on the shoulder as he went by—not very hard, but hard enough to be called a blow, not a touch. I turned and yelled, “Fuck you, asshole!” Then another kid, a girl, hit me as she went by. I wanted to keep shouting and swearing but decided that since there were 15 or 16 of them, I should let it go.
Lately, it has occurred to me that there are parallels to the Gates-Crowley incident. Here were black kids acting in a culturally stereotypical way, as the white cop did with Gates, and I reacted with a level of anger that could have gotten me hurt. Yet the reason I expressed my anger at all is that I’m not afraid of groups of black teenagers per se. I see teenagers and I think children. I remember myself as a teenager: full of swagger and attitude, nonviolent. I know that they come in multiples because teenagers love being part of a group.
I don’t think Skip Gates was afraid of the cop either. He was angry and aggrieved and felt safe in venting his anger. And for the most part he was safe. Because of who he was, and because of what the Cambridge police force is, his arrest didn’t stick.
Lots of people have expressed surprise that someone as intelligent and worldly as Skip Gates could be so “stupid” as to yell at a cop. They could say the same about me yelling insults at a group of teenagers who had already made it clear they felt like picking on someone. But it seems to me being smart means knowing when you can express your righteous anger and get away with it, and how far you can go. I didn’t run after the kids and punch one, and Gates didn’t say, “I’m going to fucking kill you for this, man.” We’re not that stupid.
“When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.”
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.”