Rants and Raves

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Gates affair, three takes

Of course by now everyone knows about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. What would have been a local news event got covered nationally because, 1) the black man in question was a Harvard professor who was, 2) a friend of the President of the United States who, 3) made a public statement on the subject of his friend's arrest.

The three takes on this, exceprted below come from a writer at the generally liberal Slate on-line magazine, the conservative Mark Steyn, and the libertarian-conservative Larry Elder.

I know Ford only from this piece. Steyn and Elder are among the authors whose laundry lists I'd read.

My views are well-known to my readers. IMHO the Ford article contains a number of fallacious assumptions, which I will comment on. The Steyn article is full of the brilliantly witty sarcasm he's justly famous for. Elder did his homework the best of all and dug deeper than either of the other two.

Ford's piece is fairly moderate. I know I could have found a number of "It's the racists pig-state of Amerikkka!" articles on the subject. What I wonder is, is this a crack in the foundation assumption that charges of racism are always valid? Have we been burned too many times at last? Did the Duke "rape" case teach us something after all?

And with the election of an African-American president, has the mainstream America Ford views in such a patronizing light finally gotten to the point of saying, "All right, if this doesn't satisfy race-grievance mongers then nothing will"?

I urge readers to follow the links to the full articles. I will have more to say about this in the next post.


The Depressing Cycle of Racial Accusation
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. is about neither racial profiling nor playing the race card.
By Richard Thompson Ford

The president got it right: There's no plausible justification for the arrest. It was worse than stupid—it was abusive. And that raises the suspicion that it was racially motivated. But there's really no evidence that the police officer involved was a racist rather than a bully with a badge or a decent cop who made a bad call in the heat of the moment.

Let's take the charge of racial profiling first. Strictly speaking, there was no profiling here: Sgt. James Crowley did not assume that professor Gates was a burglar because he fit some generic stereotype of a black criminal; he was responding to a 911 call. But racial profiling has become a sort of catchall term: If the police consider race in any way, it's profiling. The claim here is that once the police arrived, they treated Gates differently than they would have treated a white person Was this racist? The witness who called 911 said that two black men were breaking into the house, so it wasn't outrageous for Crowley to suspect that the black man he saw inside the house had just broken in. If there was racial profiling, it began with the neighbor who described the burglary suspects in terms of race (or the 911 operator who probably prompted her to do so). But that's a normal part of a suspect description: Like sex, height, and weight, race is a convenient way to identify a person. Asking police to ignore race in a description of a specific suspect takes colorblindness way too far...

Observe the "strickly speaking" qualification. From the outset Ford seems to be hedging his remarks. Then "If there was racial profiling..."

This just doesn't make sense. The neighbor gave a description of two men, with the most obvious characteristic one could see from a distance in bad light. The only purpose of the "If" clause is to cast doubt on the entirely reasonable passage following.

It's clear that Sgt. Crowley, who arrived at Gates' home last Thursday, treated Gates as a suspect: He demanded that Gates step outside, and when Gates said he lived there, the officer demanded identification...

In fact, it is not clear that Crowley treated Gates any differently than anyone at a possible crime scene at all. A policeman treats everyone at a scene with a certain amount of suspicion.

Ford uncritically uses "demanded" twice, rather than "asked" or "requested."

And even racial profiling in the sense of using race as a part of a generic composite of a typical criminal isn't necessarily racist. It's a tragic fact that blacks as a group commit a disproportionate number of certain types of crime. The trouble is that racial profiling—even if it's based on accurate generalizations—imposes a disproportionate share of the costs of law enforcement on innocent blacks, like professor Gates. Let's face it: It's hard to imagine that police would have presumed that a middle-aged white man who walks with a cane was a burglar...

Another assumption. What occured to me immediately, perhaps because I cover a police beat, and am familiar with procedures for clearing buildings etc (though it also occured to my wife right away) was this: you ask someone at the door to step outside, even when you know full well he/she is the lawful resident because you need to make sure this is not a hostage situation.

I don't know whether Crowley arrested Gates because he was angry that an uppity black man dared to question him or whether this was just a tense misunderstanding that escalated out of control. What's clear is that neither the overused notion of racial profiling nor the trope of a black malcontent playing the race card gives us any real purchase on this controversy. Gates has said he hopes to use the incident as a teaching moment. But if we are really to learn anything from it, we'll have to look deeper. We need to ask why so many police officers of all races suspect the worst of racial minorities. (I wonder what the black Cambridge police officer pictured in the photo along with Gates after his arrest would say about all of this if he could speak candidly.)

If the author didn't know if Sgt. Crowley was angry with "an uppity black man" one wonders why he never mentioned the detail which emerged in the news coverage, that the officer teaches racial sensitivity to fellow police officers?

If the back story on this is that a bigot is in charge of teaching cops to avoid giving the impression of bigotry, surely that merits deeper treatment than a casual aside?

"I wonder if...?" is the Michael Moore tactic of offering a speculation without owning it. I wonder if anyone notices it's a sneaky and cowardly chickenshit rhetorical device...?

Decades of blatant and pervasive racial discrimination, poor urban planning, and failed labor policy have left blacks disproportionately jobless and trapped in poor ghettos across the United States. Faced with few opportunities and few positive role models, a disturbing number of people in those neighborhoods turn to gangs and crime for money, protection, and esteem...

Now we're back to the background assumptions on the Left. People from protected minorities and working class backgrounds are helpless victims of circumstances entirely beyond their control that the larger society has done nothing to ameliorate- i.e. people have no free will. Evidently only white people with Ivy League degrees do.

And this assumption isn't classist and racist?

Rather than improve those neighborhoods and help the people who live in them join the prosperous mainstream, we as a society have given police the dirty job of quarantining them. Frankly, we should expect that a disproportionate number of power-hungry bigots would find such a mandate attractive. And an otherwise decent and fair-minded officer, faced with the day-to-day task of controlling society's most isolated, desperate, and angry population, might develop some ugly racial generalizations and carry them even to plush and leafy neighborhoods such as those surrounding Harvard Yard.

Psychologizing, the poor officer is just a victim of his envrionment - a nice way of libeling a man you can back away from.

It looks to me like Ford wants it both ways - or maybe he's afraid. Like he wants to say it really wasn't a case of racist cops, but knows if he says so, he'll be crucified in his circle of friends and colleagues.

Steyn focuses more on President Obama's putting his foot in the mess.

I'm inclined to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Like Ford, he's a friend of Gates, and it's natural to reflexively take a friend's side.

I will say it upsets my notion of federalism a bit that the President of the United States should concern himself with a local police matter that doesn't appear to involve a question of constitutional law.


Obama knows 'stupidly' when he doesn't see it
By Mark Steyn

The president of the United States may be reluctant to condemn Ayatollah Khamenei or Hugo Chávez or that guy in Honduras without examining all the nuances and footnotes, but sometimes there are outrages so heinous that even the famously nuanced must step up to the plate and speak truth to power. And thank God the leader of the free world had the guts to stand up and speak truth to municipal police Sgt. James Crowley.

For everyone other than the president, what happened at professor Gates' house is not entirely clear. The Harvard prof returned home without his keys and, as Obama put it, "jimmied his way into the house." A neighbor, witnessing the "break-in," called the cops, and things, ah, escalated from there. Professor Gates is now saying that, if Sgt. Crowley publicly apologizes for his racism, the prof will graciously agree to "educate him about the history of racism in America." Which is a helluva deal. I mean, Ivy League parents remortgage their homes to pay Gates for the privilege of lecturing their kids, and here he is offering to hector it away to some no-name lunkhead for free.

As to the differences between the professor's and the cops' version of events, I confess I've been wary of taking Henry Louis Gates at his word ever since, almost two decades back, the literary scholar compared the lyrics of the rap group 2 Live Crew to those of the Bard of Avon. "It's like Shakespeare's 'My love is like a red, red rose,'" he declared, authoritatively, to a court in Fort Lauderdale.

As it happens, "My luv's like a red, red rose" was written by Robbie Burns, a couple of centuries after Shakespeare. Oh, well. 16th century English playwright, 18th century Scottish poet: What's the diff? Evidently being within the same quarter-millennium and right general patch of the North-East Atlantic is close enough for a professor of English and Afro-American Studies appearing as an expert witness in a court case. Certainly no journalist reporting Gates' testimony was boorish enough to point out the misattribution...

And I certainly sympathize with the general proposition that not all encounters with the constabulary go as agreeably as one might wish. Last year I had a minor interaction with a Vermont state trooper, and, 60 seconds into the conversation, he called me a "liar." I considered my options:

Option a): I could get hot under the collar, yell at him, get tasered into submission and possibly shot while "resisting arrest";

Option b): I could politely tell the trooper I object to his characterization, and then write a letter to the commander of his barracks the following morning suggesting that such language is not appropriate to routine encounters with members of the public and betrays a profoundly defective understanding of the relationship between law enforcement officials and the citizenry in civilized societies.

I chose the latter course, and received a letter back offering partial satisfaction and explaining that the trooper would be receiving "supervisory performance-related issue-counseling," which, with any luck, is even more ghastly than it sounds and hopefully is still ongoing.

Professor Gates chose option a), which is just plain stupid.


HWB - Home While Black
By Larry Elder

Here's what happened.

Gates, "one of the nation's pre-eminent African-American scholars," writes The Boston Globe, was arrested about 1 p.m. at his home near Harvard Square by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. "The incident," says the Globe, "raised concerns among some Harvard faculty that Gates was a victim of racial profiling."

"Friends of Gates," writes the Globe, "said he was already in his home when police arrived. He showed his driver's license and Harvard identification card, but was handcuffed and taken into police custody for several hours." The Globe posted redacted arrest reports on its Web site. But for reasons unknown, the Globe removed them less than a day later.

Now Elder is being disingenuous, we know damned well why the Globe removed them. They were about to get caught doctoring the news and realized it just in time.

The Cambridge Chronicle, however, still posts the reports on its Web site. The Chronicle's article also mentions a few things the Globe omitted — including that "during the incident, Gates accused Cambridge police officers of racism."

The Chronicle writes: "A witness had called police when she saw a black man, apparently Gates, wedging his shoulder into the door, trying to gain entry, according to the arrest report. ...

"In the arrest report, police said Gates initially refused to step onto his porch when approached by (Cambridge Police Sgt. James) Crowley. He then allegedly opened his door and shouted, 'Why, because I'm a black man in America?'

"As Crowley continued to question Gates, the Harvard professor allegedly told him, 'You don't know who you're messing with.' When Crowley asked to speak with him outside, Gates allegedly said, 'Ya, I'll speak with your momma outside.'"

Crowley's report, as well as that of another responding officer, describe Gates yelling repeated accusations of racism while asserting that the officer "had no idea who (he) was 'messing' with" and that the officer "had not heard the last of it."

After initially refusing to produce any identification confirming his residence, Gates finally supplied a Harvard ID. By that time, a crowd of officers and passers-by was outside. In front of the house and "in view of the public," Crowley states he twice warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. But Gates' yelling and "tumultuous behavior" continued, causing "surprise and alarm" in the citizenry outside. Crowley then placed Gates under arrest.

Crowley "asked Gates if he would like an officer to take possession of his house key and secure his front door, which he left wide open." Gates said "the door was unsecurable due to a previous break attempt at the residence ." (Emphasis added.)

OK, the cops overreacted. Cops' training involves dealing with verbally abusive citizens. They could have walked away, written a report and allowed the prosecutor to determine whether to file charges. But Gates overreacted, too.

Last week, about 2 p.m., while driving a nice car, I got stopped by a police officer about a block from my home in Los Angeles. The officer asked for license and registration. "Yes, sir," I said, handing him my license. Before I could retrieve the registration, he said, "Mr. Elder, do you still live at this address?" I said I did. He said: "OK. I stopped you because you rolled through a stop sign. Two pedestrians saw you, and they gestured to me, as if saying, 'Are you going to do something about that?' So I felt I had to stop you. I'm not looking for area residents. I'm looking for people who don't live here who might be committing crimes. You're fine."

I did roll through the stop sign. He could have ticketed me. Rather, he responded to my politeness with politeness. Besides, don't we want a proactive police department that, within the law, doesn't just react to crime but also tries to prevent it?

Cops routinely deal with conflict, angry citizens and quite often the worst of the worst — while going to work every day willing to take a bullet for someone they don't even know.

Even Henry You-Don't-Know-Who-You're-Messing-With Gates should understand that.

OK, now we've got some detail that didn't get as widespread circulation as it should have. Detail that tends to support what is so far only a rumor: that Gates is known to seek confrontation with authorities, perhaps to bolster his "angry black man against the racist power" cred.

(Sarcasm alert; I just used the Ford technique I've been 'deconstructing.' And I just left myself the same kind of chickenshit out as well. My, my, a twofer.)

Next, some thoughts and personal anecdotes.


  • At 4:06 AM, Blogger Karoly said…

    The Ford article reminded me that in Eastern Europe every scholarly article and book had to have a passage explaining how the results had already prefigured in the works of Friedrich Engels, or how they proved the validity of dialectical materialism. Authors usually appended this to the conclusion to keep it separate from the main body of the work, and it was therefore called "the red tail."

  • At 5:10 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    "The red tail," that's delightful!

    Glad to hear someone with experience also noticed that tone in the Ford article.

    It can be tough to be the target of the Left - but it's really miserable to be one of the Left and out of step with the required opinions.


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