The Teachable Moment that Wasn’t

31 07 2009

With so much that has been shouted and so little that’s been said during this “teachable moment,” I am glad that the photo-op and the platitudes that accompanied the Gates-Crowley affair has  been now put to rest over a few brewskis. We have not learned anything new about racial profiling, or had an honest conversation about racial prejudice, or matured as a nation in any way since the story broke.

Instead, we were fascinated by the fact that these two strangers of different hues are in fact very distantly related, that St. Crowley tried to resuscitate to the late Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, that we should not call the get together a Beer Summit, that Vice President Joe Biden does not drink at all, and that the conservatives think that our part white and part black president somehow hates white people.

But most of all we learned that the best way to not talk about race is to trivialize the issue by reducing it to the isolated prejudices of others not as a living and mutating phenomenon that may influence our split second impressions of one another.

We did not learn, however, that even if we are racist ourselves its still possible that racial prejudice may still be a factor in how we treat one another. We also did not learn about what leads to racial profiling. We did not learn why many people of color and whites sees these kind of controversies so differently.

To be sure, this incident could not have come at a worse time for the president and I certainly recognize that. He really does not have time or the interest in playing racial healer, especially when he is trying to convince the American public and even members of his own party, even with commanding  majorities in both chambers, of the merits of his health care plan.

By the same token, I cannot help but lament the fact that this was the “teachable moment” that wasn’t.


Glenn Loury Gets it Wrong

27 07 2009

Or at least some of it.

In a curious op-ed that he penned for the New York Times on the controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Brown University Professor Glenn Loury says the whole affair was “the rough equivalent of a black man being thrown out of a restaurant after having berated an indifferent maître d’ for showing him to a table by the kitchen door, all the while declaring what everybody is supposed to know: this is what happens to a black man in America.”

Perhaps this would be true if the Sgt. Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, performed his duties in according to the letter of the law. But the fact of the matter is that even if Gates got ‘uppity’ and became belligerent, there’s still precious little to suggest that the grey haired professor should have been cuffed for disorderly conduct in his own home or in close proximity to it. This is especially true, if Gates produced an ID with his home address on it, which he in fact did do. Also, I noted in an earlier post, what Gates was accused of doing does not rise to of say violent or threatening drunkness that may lead to creating a nuisance or danger to the public as stated under Massachusetts law.

Secondly, Loury seemed compelled to defend racial profiling by law enforcement on the grounds that “police are at the front line in our society’s response to them. We should be slow to judge them, and slower still to embrace crude stereotypes about their motives — just as they should be slow to conclude that someone is a likely criminal suspect because he happens to be black and male.”

Sigh. Of course, we would not want to unnecessarily malign police men and women and other first responders. Of course, they have very tough jobs. But that does not excuse the pervasiveness and uselessness of racial profiling. Several studies have shown that its counter-productive, whether the context is the war on drugs or the war on terror, which is why much of the law enforcement community has endorsed the End Racial Profiling Act.

ERPA would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice.  It has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Ending racial profiling it and of itself could be an important first step in diminishing the mutual suspicion that exists among people of color and law enforcement and maybe lead to a more cooperation.

Plus, to suggest that the stereotypes of policemen by people of color, who are more likely to be stopped, frisked, and victims of use of force by law enforcement, is somehow as equally powerful as the stereotypes that might exist in the minds of a minority of police officers who carry out such acts is just wrong. This is not to disparage police officers who play by the rules and put their lives on the line everyday, but it is to acknowledge that there is an asymetrical power relationship here.

Thirdly, while Loury does have a point in criticizing candidate Obama for choosing to avoid commenting on last year’s the verdict in the Shawn Bell case and ducking many questions having to do with racial justice generally since he has become president,  its not entirely true that the administration is indifferent to plight of poor black folk.

(Last year three New York City police officers fired 51 shots on the night right before Sean Bell, a 23-year old black man, was to be wed when he hit an unmarked police car twice just after exiting a strip club. Two of Bell’s friends in the car were also injured. All three officers were acquitted. “The judge has made his ruling, and we’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down,” said then-Senator Obama.)

To its credit, the Obama administration has supported an equalizing federal sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. Under current law, five grams of crack carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. To get the same penalty of cocaine one needs to possess 500 grams of cocaine. This creates a 100 to 1 disparity for what is pharmacologically the same drug. The sentencing disparity is widely credited with having a disproportionate affect on the incarceration rates of African Americans.

Of course, the president has not made anything publicly about it, but he has Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, “This Administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences is unwarranted, creates a perception of unfairness, and must be eliminated. This change should be addressed in Congress.”

A bipartisian bill – the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act (H.R. 3245) – is now making its way through the House of Representatives and a companion bill be introduced in the Senate soon too.

Also, the announcement of the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, which is designed to help poor performing schools, will disproportionately help African Americans and Latino students.

Neither the effort to equalize the federal sentencing on powder and crack nor the education initiative were mentioned in Loury’s column.

Can’t Begrudge Him

26 07 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the President’s more tempered remarks on Friday afteroon:

I really can’t begrudge him–his priority is health-care. Me, on the other hand, I’m pretty exhausted. What follows is the raw. Not much logic. Just some thoughts on how it feels.

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.

I agree.

Obama Tries to Quell Criticism of Gates Arrest

25 07 2009

President Barack Obama attempted to quell criticism of his remarks concerning the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry “Skip” Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force during a cameo appearance at a White House press briefing on Friday. The president expressed regret that “my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” He also said he phoned Sgt. Crowley to apologize for conveying the false impression that he intended to malign him and his department.

At his press conference on Wednesday he said “that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they [sic] were in their own home.”

Seeing how his words of condemnation inadvertently led to much of the inane fodder in the blogosphere, talk radio, and cable television chatter and consequently distracting the public from his broader legislative agenda, he urged us to step “back for a moment,”  recognize that “these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts,”  but “be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”

He also said he invited Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for a beer as a gesture of good will and hopes of reconciling differences and putting this controversy to rest.

His comments were meant to be conciliatory and to prevent the controversy over his initial set of remarks from competing with his message of the urgency of passing a health care reform bill through a slow moving Congress. On August 7th, the Congress breaks for a month long recess, and the White House is determined to keep the pressure on lawmakers to continue to work on the bill even during the break if need be. I could see how some of his advisers may think wading into racial politics at this juncture would not be helpful.

By the same token, the president attempt to rein back his statements were not helpful in enriching our already impoverished discussion of racial justice. Whether he knew it or not, the president’s remarks on Friday gave us the impression that the gray haired professor who walks with a cane is just a fault for his own arrest in his own home even if he produced an ID showing as the imposing and armed police officer is for cuffing him, since its all one big misunderstanding.

To imply there is some kind of moral equivalency here given the power relationship is wrong. Even if Professor Gates was belligerent is not clear that he was wanted to fight, threaten, initiate violent behavior, or was a danger to public safety or became annoyance, any one of which would have justified the arrest for disorderly conduct under Massachusetts law. In this instance, a mere heated exchange eventuated in a mug shot.

The president could have at least reaffirmed his statement on Wednesday that racial profiling remains a national problem and that something should be done about it.  For starters, we could pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice. ERPA has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Instead, we are told that tempers flared unnecessarily on both sides and that we should all calm down and have a brewski. I doubt that the next person of color who gets pulled over in the Boston area will derive much solace from that recommendation.

President Obama called this a “teachable moment” for all us but that presumes that someone has to do the teaching or at least lead the discussion. Many people, perhaps unjustifiably, expected our first black president to do just that, but it seems he really does not appetite for it and quite frankly is rather busy with salvaging two failed wars he inherited from his predecessor in addition to trying to capture terrorists, reforming our financial regulatory system, stimulate job creation, overhauling our education system and, of course, passing a health care reform bill.

Political observers have wondered whether or not President Obama’s ascendancy not only means that we live in a post-racist America, but also if we need an activist class of black leaders anymore. Some have provocatively asked if Obama signifies the “End of Black Politics?” But the President Obama needs a counterweight on these issues, someone to contrast his own views with on racial justice issues and who can forcefully communicate the concerns of black America to everyone else. The president still has to worry about managing the perception that he’s inclined to favor some groups over others.

Of course, scores of black intellectuals and civic leaders have commented on the Gates affair, but no one with the kind of stature necessary to become President Obama’s gadfly on racial issues writ large in the same way President Lydon B. Johnson had to contend with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 60’s.

Even the most gifted and talented among us need to be pushed in the right direction to realize their potential.

Check out the president’s remarks on Friday here:

Obama on Skip Gates and Racial Profiling

23 07 2009

At an otherwise snooze fest of a presser devoid of….well news, President Barack Obama offered a few candid remarks about racial profiling that may wind up overshadowing anything having to do with the debate over a public option or how to contain the rising cost of health care premiums. In responding to a question from Lyn Sweet of the Chicago Tribune about what the arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates says about race relations in American society, the president was surprisingly pointed in his criticism of the Cambridge police.

The former civil rights lawyer said he thought “the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home” and that “we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

President Obama also sought to disabuse people of the notion that his win in November 2008 or even that of Governor Deval Patrick in Massachuettes in 2006 means we now live in a so-called “post-racial” society where racism is dead when he asserted that there is “indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.”

He also said, “I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.”

Watch his response:

Henry “Skip” Gates and Dave Chappelle on Racial Profiling

22 07 2009

For those of you not following the whole Professor Henry “Skip” Gates being racially profiled and then arrested at his own home for “disorderly conduct” here is a summary from today’s WaPo:

After returning from a week in China researching the genealogy of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Gates found himself locked out of his house, and he and his driver began pushing against the front door. The sight of two black men forcing open a door prompted an emergency call to police.

The white officer who arrived found Gates in the house (the driver was gone) and asked him to step outside. Gates refused, and the officer followed him in. Gates showed him his ID, which included his address, then demanded that the officer identify himself. The officer did not comply, Gates said. He then followed the officer outside, saying repeatedly, “Is this how you treat a black man in America?”

The police report said that Gates was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior” and that the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, identified himself. “We stand by whatever the officer said in his report,” said Sgt. James DeFrancesco, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department. He would not comment on Gates’s version of his arrest.

The department said that Crowley tried to calm Gates, but that the professor would not cooperate and said, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

“These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed,” the report said.

Gates said he does not think that anything he did justified the officer’s actions. He walks with a cane and said he did not pose a threat.

“I weigh 150 pounds and I’m 5-7. I’m going to give flak to a big white guy with a gun. I might wolf later, but I won’t wolf then.”

Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president was “huge and important,” Gates said, but “did not translate to structural change. Given the demographics of Cambridge, [the officer] probably voted for Barack. That wasn’t much help to me.”

He added: “I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that the criminal justice system is rotten.”

Interestingly enough, the governor of Massachusetts Patrick Deval is also black. Neither of which seemed important enough to counter the kind of preconceived notions that often lead to racial profiling even in the liberal Bay State.

Years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle explained why he fears the police in a hypothetical (or maybe real?) account of finding an intruder in his house.  Today more than ever it seems especially apropos.

New Harry and Louise Ads Up

19 07 2009

New “Harry and Louise” ads are airing this weekend urging Congress to pass universal heath care, but with a more encouraging, softer and more gentler tone than the versions that ran in 1993. Those series of ads, among other factors, are widely credited with killing the push for comprehensive health care during the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. But some people do not see it that way. “What really turned it into ‘Harry and Louise’ vs. the Bill and Hillary campaign was the response of the Clinton White House. Hillary in particular responded very personally,” Ben Goddard, the writer and director of the old and new ads told ABC News.

I am not so sure that even in retrospect that argument is the least bit plausible, but it does sound as if creators of the original spots are have changed adopted a different message. Here is what ABC News said about it:

“While the popular perception has been for some time that it was an anti-health care reform campaign, it would be more accurate to say it questioned the wisdom of the proposal that the Hillary’s health committee cooked up essentially behind closed doors without input from the industry.” Goddard said that this time around, the President wants to include private insurance policies as part of the solution.

Both “Harry and Louise” actors and their director Goddard — who married the actress playing Louise in both the 1993 and 2009 ads — were on the Hill today along with representatives of insurance companies and key leaders in the health care industry, speaking in support of the Affordable Health Choices Act. That act, passed by the Senate’s HELP committee yesterday, includes a public option.

The ad buy reportedly cost $4 millions a is paid for by Families USA, a health care advocacy group supporting universal coverage, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade association of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and two large insurance companies.

Original Harry and Louise ads in 1993:

New Harry and Louise ad  “Get the Job Done”: