09 August 2009

On Race and Respect

I'm a bit hesitant to post this, as the Henry Louis Gates thing has only just disappeared off the headlines (as it should), but the incident really got me to thinking again about race in America and how depressingly little progress we’ve made since the 70s, particularly of late when we appear to be slipping backwards (though I don’t think we actually are -- I think the racism that has been bubbling up for a while just broke the surface).

A good portion of my life was spent in the Deep South, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of real-live racial hatred in person, and even more “soft” racism. Perhaps that’s why, when the story first broke, I immediately saw it as a case of “arrested for being HWB” (Housed While Black). This is not to say that Officer Crowley is a racist pig, or an authoritarian asshole (and too many cops in the south fall into one or more of these categories), but that he was operating on some pretty deep-seated racial modes -- particularly regarding middle-class and wealthy minorities -- that every white authority figure who interacts with blacks deals with (consciously or subconsciously); you walk into a room, notice that there is a minority person there, and subtly change your behaviour. It’s a palpable difference from just walking into a room full of humans who happen to be various shades, and even if one considers themselves completely non-racist, it happens to those of us of a certain age and background.

Most of the time, officers like Crowley deal with minorities from a position of superiority. They may not mean to put themselves “above” these people, but it’s part of the job to deal with the poor and undereducated, some of whom are white but the majority aren’t. The “rules” change when dealing with a minority who’s social position is above yours, but you’re so used to it being the other way around that you forget this. When Gates became indignant and testy about the “extended” investigation, Crowley felt the need to show him “who’s boss.” It would be easy to call this racism, and it is motivated by that in part, but it’s actually more like class-ism.

All of this is not meant in any way to excuse Crowley. It’s to point out that white people (like myself) sometimes have great difficulty seeing life through “black” eyes, because our experience going through life is so very different, and we’re largely not even aware that it’s different. I’ve never been stopped while driving solely because I was black in a “white” neighbourhood, and I daresay most reading this haven’t either. Some would scoff at the very notion of it, but I’ve seen it first-hand. And many other examples in many other settings. It’s real.

Two recent essays posted by a friend on a different forum contain some real insight on both Henry Louis Gates’ life as a black man in white-dominated academia (where you really wouldn’t think it would matter!), and the more average black person’s experience in most corners of the US. This one, written by a former employer and friend of Gates’, makes no attempt to defend him, but instead provides some eye-opening background as to why Gates behaved as he did.

This one gets one of the key facts wrong (the woman who called the police in the first place did at no point identify Gates or his companion as black men, as the tape now shows, but this essay was written before that when media reports claimed otherwise), but definitely illustrates the “soft racism” of more progressive areas of the nation. Boston is a long way, physically and mentally, from the Deep South -- but class issues (and boundaries) do much the same job as race-hatred when it comes down to people’s lives.

Both essays point to something I had previously not considered: that Obama’s unusually strong reaction to the furoré was possibly reflective of such incidents of racism in his own life, not just a faux pas or a badly-handled defense of his friend. There’s little doubt that Obama has been exposed to racist behaviour, even growing up in Hawaii -- after all, he’s a half-breed, isn’t he? Worst of both worlds in the view of more than a few.

Heck, he’s being exposed to racist behaviour right now, courtesy the birthers/deathers/dumbers, who would never dream of subjecting a white president (even one who is actually less qualified to claim “natural-born American” status than Obama is!) to this blatant disrespect.

After reading these essays, you might gain some further insight into how well this whole “birthers/deathers/dumbers” thing is playing with Minority America, and how they view it not as a question of citizenship or even politically, but as just another instance of disrespect. But don’t take my word for it ...

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