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.


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.

“Doing that Crack Cocaine Thing”

18 07 2009

In a moment of unexpected yet welcome levity during the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings for to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Senator Jeff Sessions made an unprompted comment about correcting one of Congress biggest blunders: enacting a law creating a 100 to 1 disparity in cocaine and crack sentencing.

In an exchange with a noted civil rights advocate he said, ” Senator Leahy and I are talking during these hearings. We’re going to do that crack cocaine thing that you and I have talked about before.” The comment immediately drew laughs and prompted Sessions to explain, “We’re going to reduce the burden of penalties in some of the crack cocaine cases and make them fair.”

All jokes aside this is undoubtedly a good sign. Sen. Sessions was addressing Wade Henderson a noted civil rights advocate, who has been urging Congress to reform the crack cocaine sentencing including mandatory minimums for years. Under federal law, a dealer with 5 grams of crack cocaine on him, which is the size of two sugar packets can get a five year mandatory minimum sentence. By contrast, a cocaine dealer would have to have 500 grams of cocaine, which is more a little more than a pound, to trigger a five year mandatory minimum.  That creates a 100 to 1 disparity in the sentencing for crack and cocaine.

“Equalization of the sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100 to 1 to a ratio of 1 to 1 at the current powder cocaine level is the only fair solution,” Henderson told the Senate subcommittee on Crime and Drugs in April of this year. “The time has come to rationalize drug sentencing laws and practices.  The civil rights impact of these criminal justice reforms can no longer be ignored.”

Those sentiments were later echoed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month. “ 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,” Holder said.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, the median drug quantity for a crack cocaine street level seller charged in federal court (comprising two-thirds of federal crack defendants) in 2000 was 52 grams, enough to trigger a 10-year mandatory sentence. For powder cocaine, the median quantity for a street level dealer was 340 grams, not enough even to trigger the 5-year sentence, and often a mere slap on the wrist for first time offenders.

But crack and powder cocaine are pharmacological identical substances. In fact, crack is just a hardened form of  powder cocaine often mixed with baking power. But with cocaine users being disproportionately white compared to crack users who are disproportionately black the law with its penalty structures has a huge unfair impact on who goes to prison and who doesn’t and for how long.

Why did Congress do this? And continue to tolerate it? Interestingly enough, it was the reaction to the story of Len Bias‘ death that led to the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which is the law that contains all the stiff penalties. Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose after experimenting it for the first time the night he was drafted by the Boston Celtics shocked Congress into action and really prompted the war on drugs as we know it.

In fact, the law’s mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses were the harshest ever adopted for low level drug offenses and established the drastically different penalty structures for crack and powder cocaine. Lawmakers, however, had a poor understanding of the differences between the drug substances and figured that the disparity would lead to jailing actual drug king pins.

Of course, thanks to the Wire and countless other studies, we now know that it the law affects more low level drug dealers, who are easily replaceable as they come in and out of jail, than it does so called king pins, who often rarely see extensive jail time. This has led to an explosion of incarceration rates with notable racial disparities. Between 1994 and 2003, the average time served by African Americans for drug offenses increased by 62 percent, compared to an increase of 17 percent for white drug offenders, says the Sentencing Project.

An independent federal body called the Sentencing Commission, has called for reforming the sentencing structure for more than a decade now, and the Obama administration supports doing so, but its hard to underestimate the fear of being branded as soft on crime for Republican and Democratic elected officials alike, especially for redstate Dems.

That said, the tide does seem to be turning because with increasing support for a 1 to 1 bill in both the House and Senate. And even Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor in Alabama with less than enlightened views on racial equality, supported a 20 to 1 bill back in 2007.

To be sure, that’s not exactly where the ratio should be, but its certainly an improvement. This is significant because whatever reform bill comes out the Senate will have to go through the Senate committee where Sessions is currently the top Republican. So, when the Alabama Senator said he wants to work with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen Patrick Leahy about a “doing that crack cocaine thing” its definitely a good sign.

Lindsey Graham’s Majoritarianism

15 07 2009

On day 2 of the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, Senator Lindsey Graham asked a fairly peculiar question. “What’s the best way for society to change, generally speaking? What’s the most legitimate way for a society to change?” At first, Judge Sotomayor was stumped by that question because it seemed academic at best.

He then asks “Do you think judges — do you think judges have changed society by some of the landmark decisions in the last 40 years?” Now it is plainly true that the high court’s decisions on everything from campaign finance reform to the death penalty to gay rights to bilingual education to voting rights to employment discrimination and much more has undoubtedly changed society.  But Judge Sotomayor wisely demured from responding until he revealed his real reason for engaging in that line of questioning.

And in a very patronizing Senator Graham noted “… a lot of us feel that the best way to change society is to go to the ballot box, elect someone, and if they are not doing it right, get rid of them through the electoral process. And a lot of us are concerned from the left and the right that unelected judges are very quick to change society in a way that’s disturbing. Can you understand how people may feel that way?”

Of course, this seems sensible on its face, but it Sen. Graham is ignoring how the courts as an institution differ from legislative bodies. Part of the reason judges to federal courts are unelected and have lifetime tenure is to make sure that political pressures do not override larger concerns about constitutional rights, including making unpopular rulings if necessary, to protect the rights of women and people of color.

Of course, the ballot box is important and is obviously a tranformative vehicle for change in its own right, but the courts can provide a check against the other two branches of government when both are two preocuppied with the popular will. Democracy is more than simple majority rule. It also has to consider the rights of minorities and the individual.

But Sen. Graham also noted:

I think, for a long time, a lot of talented women were asked, can you type? And were trying to get beyond that and improve as a nation. So when it comes to the idea that we should consciously try to include more people in the legal process and the judicial process, from different backgrounds, count me in.

But your speeches don’t really say that to me.

They — along the lines of what Senator Kyl was saying — they kind of represent the idea, there’s a day coming when there’ll be more of us — women and minorities — and we’re going to change the law.

And what I hope we’ll take away from this hearing is there need to be more women and minorities in the law to make a better America. And the law needs to be there for all of us, if and when we need it.
And the one thing that I’ve tried to impress upon you through jokes and being serious, is the consequences of these words in the world in which we live in. You know, we’re talking about putting you on the Supreme Court and judging your fellow citizens.

And one of the things that I need to be assured of is that you understand the world as it pretty much really is. And we’ve got a long way to go in this country…

This statement is the clearest expression of the anxiety white males feel about living in a society with more Judge Sonia Sotomayors and fewer Joe the Plumbers.

Watch the exchange here: