Another 'Racial Incident': Debunking Talking Points about the Gates Arrest

Well, well, well … another "racial incident" is upon us. This time, we're in an uproar over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates (black) by Sgt. James Crowley (white) for disorderly conduct after a heated argument about whether Gates had broken into his own house in Cambridge, Mass. Incidents like this should be an excuse to have a nuanced discussion about race in America. It's an excellent opportunity for people to hear about why black men feel so threatened by police. Hell, it would be a great time for a bit of B-roll─just a taste of the famous incidents that have seared a distrust of the police into African-Americans, for better or for worse. It could start with the use of high-pressure water hoses and dogs on children in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and continue through the high-profile murders of black folks, such as Emmett Till, by people who were not convicted but who confessed to the crime in Life magazine. Maybe it could mention that of the 240 postconviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., 142 have been of African-Americans. And though it may be controversial, perhaps throw in the exoneration of four white officers for the beating of Rodney King in 1992.

Now, I know that none of these things have much to do with what happened at Professor Gates's house, except that they have everything to do with it. It's important for people to know that black distrust of the cops didn't form in a vacuum. And you know, it wouldn't hurt to get a little background on what local and national police procedure actually is under these kinds of circumstances. For instance, if a cop asks you to step outside, do you have to? (No.) Is it illegal to yell at the police? (No.) But it is appropriate for cops to investigate 911 calls. That's what we pay them to do. We don't escape racially charged situations by silence or ignorance. And we clearly don't escape "the third rail of race," as the press likes to call it, by sticking to our talking points no matter the circumstances. Let's just run through those talking points and see how we could have made some headway but didn't:

1. The president should have kept his mouth shut until he knew all the facts.
This is a popular rebuttal in situations like this, when directly answering the point raised would force you to possibly admit some wrongdoing, and, for some reason, when race is concerned it's impossible to be even 1 percent wrong. When Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, was asked at today's press conference what the proper procedure is for arresting people for disorderly conduct, the question was thoroughly ducked by an association attorney who said, "Having spent 30 years in the business, any law professor will tell you that one of the most difficult crimes to define is disorderly [conduct], but when a police officer makes a decision on the street, he doesn't have time to explore 20 years of precedent." That's not an answer that indicates they're confident Gates had been disorderly, but to answer that wouldn't have served their point.

2. It was Gates who brought race into it. As if. As Gates, editor of the African American National Biography, would tell you, I'm sure race was a factor before his neighbor picked up her phone to dial 911. The cutting-edge research of UCLA's Matthew D. Lieberman shows that large majorities of both blacks and whites exhibit an automatic threat response when shown a picture of an African-American man with a neutral facial expression. That doesn't mean we're all racist, but it sure as heck indicates that we're not race-neutral either. Nobody, especially police, can say that race is never, ever a fact in their decision making. Unconscious racial bias plagues us all. It was at least a partial motivation for the neighbor when she thought to call the police, and it was clearly uppermost in Gates's mind when Sergeant Crowley knocked on his door.

3. The police are always motivated by racial animus when they investigate crime.
They aren't─there are tons of fabulous police officers who put themselves in harm's way to protect the citizens of their municipality. Once you begin to generalize wildly about all cops, you lose the argument that some cops do use racial profiling to target and harass African-Americans. The great thing about nuance is that it allows your point to be made and not immediately dismissed out of hand. Black people don't commit all the crime in the United States, but they do commit some crime, so it's not wacky for a cop to suspect that an African-American may have actually done something wrong. Forgive the sarcasm, but I'm just sick and tired of the conversation being hijacked by hardliners trying to convince us that it's an either/or thing: either all black people are innocent and simply victims of police harassment and entrenched poverty, or all police officers are hardworking saints making snap decisions that are always right.

The wild reaction to Obama's comments indicates how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations. We use every incident that brings race to the forefront as proof that our previous positions were correct. This is why the American people are so weary of racial incidents; they're all sound and no substance. We elected an African-American president, for gosh sakes─we can handle nuance.