Does something have to be racist to be wrong?

Last summer the big news story was the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who is black, at his home by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, on a charge of “loud and tumultuous behavior,” and the controversy over whether this was an example of white racism.

The background is that Prof. Gates had returned from a long airplane flight to China, found himself locked out of his house, and forced open his front door. A neighbor thought Prof. Gates’ house was being burglarized, and phoned Cambridge police. Sgt. Crowley showed up and demanded Prof. Gates identify himself which, after some argument, he did. So far, so good; up to this point Sgt. Crowley was going his duty.

The argument is over what happened next. Click here for Sgt. Crawley’s version and here for Prof. Gates’ version. What is undisputed is that Sgt. Gates did not leave after Prof. Gates produced his ID.  Instead Sgt. Crowley invited Prof. Gates outside, where he then arrested him on a charge of making a public disturbance. The charge was later dismissed.

The question everybody asked was: Would Sgt. Crowley have behaved the same way if Prof. Gates had been white? My best guess is: Yes, absolutely he would.  I can’t of course read the mind of somebody I don’t even know, but everything I’ve read about police officer’s background leads me to think that (1) he doesn’t have anything in particular against black people and (2) he would have treated me, a white man, in exactly the same way in the same circumstances. That is to say, I could have been arrested  even though I had committed no real crime. Why is this supposed to be a consolation?

I read and heard commentary afterward about how incidents such as this should make me aware of my “white skin privilege.”  My thought is just the opposite. It is that anything that can be done to a black man can be done to me. Most of my friends are college-educated white people such as myself. We are all aware that there is an unwritten offense called “contempt of cop.” We all are very careful about how we address police officers, as Prof. Gates would have been wise to do.  Subservience to authority has become the norm in American life for everyone, not just minorities.

True, it is not the same for white people as for black people.  For me and my white friends, the issue when we interact with a police officer is whether we will be charged and what with. A black acquaintance once told me that he instructs his young son in how to behave around police because he saw it as a life-and-death matter. He thought a misunderstanding or wrong word could get him or his son killed.

I don’t have to worry about things like that, but is that a “privilege”? Isn’t that more like a right? If white people were treated just as badly as black people, would that be a solution? Not having to worry about police abuse, not having to worry about discrimination in employment or finance, not having to worry about being judged on the basis of my race – these are not things to feel guilty about having; these are things everybody should have.

I of course respect the role of the police in upholding the law and public order. I understand that police work is stressful and dangerous. I think most police officers act in a responsible and professional manner most of the time, but not all of them do so all of the time.

I have some links to background on the Gates case and related matters below the fold.

Click here for Sgt. Crowley’s police report on his arrest of Prof. Gates.

Click here for a statement by Prof. Gates’ lawyer.

It seems to me that the discrepancies between the two statements are more in what was left out rather than in contradictory statements. If you read them together, it doesn’t seem difficult to understand what happened.

Click here for a thoughtful comment on the issue of “contempt of cop.”

Click here for a thoughtful comment on the issue of police discretion by a New York City police captain.

Click here for a racist letter to the editor by a Boston police officer. I am not going to argue that such attitudes are typical, but I don’t believe they are unique.

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One Response to “Does something have to be racist to be wrong?”

  1. philebersole Says:

    As an example of how little protection is given by “white privilege,” here is the case of Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction writer, who was beaten up by U.S. border guards last December for trivial reasons, had his car, computer and other property confiscated (including his winter coat), was charged with assault, and was set loose on foot in his shirtsleeves in the Canadian winter. He was acquitted for the assault charge, but convicted of failing to comply with the lawful order of a law enforcement officer.

    Click on this and this for Peter Watts’ account of the incident.

    Click on this and this for Peter Watts’ reaction to the jury trial and verdict.

    Click on this and this and this for the reaction of the science fiction community to the trial and verdict.

    I take the word of Peter Watts for what happened based on his reputation and on the fact that his version of events evidently was accepted by the jury.

    The point of all this is NOT that white people can be abused and therefore black people have nothing to complain about. Rather it is that liberty is indivisible. Anything that can be done to a Rodney King or to a scary-looking guy with a beard and Arabic name can be done to me, or to you (whatever demographic category you may fall into).

    Update April 30, 2010. Peter Watts was given a substantial fine but no jail time for his so-called offense.

    Click on this for his version of the sentencing.


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