Theory Teacher's Blog

“Race,” Profiling, and Deference — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

As most readers of this blog have probably already heard, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — a professor at Harvard University and arguably the most famous living scholar of African American literature — was recently arrested for disorderly conduct right outside his own house. Gates is somebody whom I have in the past assigned to my students in theory and literature courses, but if you haven’t heard of him, then go ahead and look him up on wikipedia. And if you haven’t already heard what happened to him yesterday, well then here’s some links to various versions of the story: NY Times, Huffington Post, and the official police report.

A couple of things are obvious about this story, but their obviousness may prevent us from noticing what we really should be noticing. One, obviously Gates is correct that none of this would have happened to him if he were white. So, right off the bat we have to acknowledge that some kind of racial profiling was being enacted. Whether or not that was the police officer’s intention is certainly another story, you might say, since he was not actively “profiling” anybody according to any officially mandated procedure. But this other story about intention is of course precisely the story that we should be paying attention to — and we should be paying attention to it for several good reasons, perhaps least of which is that this is exactly the sort of story that Gates has dedicated his whole career to deconstructing.

The title of my blog is an allusion to the very well-known and influential book of essays by various big-name theorists that Gates put together called “Race,” Writing, and Difference, which investigates how the category of race was historically written into being — that is to say, culturally constructed. The important thing to notice here is not that the police officer was a racist, but that the police officer was merely doing his job, and that his job was to respond to the call of Gates’s neighbor, who was merely doing her duty as a concerned citizen. Am I excusing the police officer and the neighbor by suggesting they were just doing what they believed they were supposed to be doing? Not at all. Their behavior was racist to the core, but racist in a complex way. And it’s important to acknowledge this complexity lest we simply start bashing the police or the neighbor… or even Gates.

What isn’t always obvious about racism — but really ought to be — is that racism itself is not obvious. If it were obviously what it is, then it wouldn’t exist, right? Nobody would ever admit to being one of those, but there it is — whether one wants to admit it, it’s there… and we are… because the structures of racism have been so thoroughly “written” into our culture that it affects our everyday reality whether we notice it or not.

Two, the second thing that is obvious here is that Gates flipped out — understandably so. How would you react if a police officer were standing in your house not believing that you were you? And in flipping out, he berated the cop, and in berating the cop he failed to realize what he himself has analyzed so carefully in his scholarship — the complexity and depth of racism in America. In other words, he didn’t realize that it was his own neighbor who had set everything in motion, and instead he accused the cop of being racist.

Now, in my own recent experience, I’ve witnessed a white woman calling the cops on her neighbor who was also in front of his own house, but in this case, the cop who answered the call ignored the caller (as I blogged about a couple weeks ago here). Two differences between the Gates case and my case. First, I witnessed this in a racially diverse, working class neighborhood, not in a fancy-pantsy neighborhood like Cambridge where Gates lives. Second, the Hispanic man showed deference to the cop, and Gates didn’t. What this difference underscores is something about the nature of the housing market and of the exclusive nature of the neighborhood — something we really need to pay attention to when stuff like what happened to Gates happens (and it happens far too often, hence the common pun on DUI — DWB, or “driving while black.”)

And so, my point is that when we read about the po-po putting the cuffs on yet another innocent black man, in addition to reminding ourselves of the depressing statistic that the U.S. has a larger percentage of its population in jail than any other country in the world and that most of them are black, and in addition to reminding ourselves that minorities have culturally had to learn a kind of deference that Gates refused to perform yesterday precisely because he knows all too well that no white person would have had to perform it, we should also remind ourselves that banks and real estate agents have created a society that is more racially segregated now in 2009 than it was before the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And if you don’t believe that’s true, see this study here (or my previous blog post here) that suggests how racism might have exacerbated our recent housing market crisis. The point being, that the neighbor’s neighborly duty is structurally part of the deep nature of how neighborhoods are defined. Her racist action was probably not intended to be so, but rather was an effect of the structure of her neighborhood’s culture.

Three, what is perhaps less obvious is the structure of how one understands one’s role. In this case we have Gates hysterically asserting his authority as a Harvard professor and the cop hysterically asserting his authority as a cop. And then, most importantly perhaps, the role of the crowd outside. Would the cop have arrested Gates if it were not for the fact that a small crowd of people outside had begun to watch the scene unfold before them? If you read the officer’s own report, you will notice that it’s not until he feels the gaze of the crowd upon him that he decides to arrest Gates.

I don’t think we can underestimate two things here. First, we cannot underestimate the significant role of the Other (the crowd) that would force a decisive response from the cop (the arrest). Second, we cannot underestimate the fact that the cop might have unwittingly done exactly the opposite of what the crowd wanted him to do. This indicates some of the complexities of racism all the more, for if the cop at that moment of decision thought he was doing the right thing before the gaze of the crowd but was in fact misunderstanding what was expected, then the nature of “intention” — i.e., the story of intention that I suggested at the begining of this post is THE story we ought be paying attention to — is truly a complicated, contradictory, and beastly nature.

And so when we repeat the seemingly obvious and common-sensical truism that “race” and “racism” are culturally constructed (a truism that has only become “common sense” within my own short lifetime), we ought to remind ourselves how complicated and strange is the cultural process by which that construction happens.

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July 21, 2009 - Posted by | race

2 Comments »

  1. I like this post a lot, and I really commend you for hitting the first point first. None of this would have happened to Gates if he was white. Full stop.

    I don’t think it matters very much in the end what the intentions of the police officer actually were, but if I’m reading you right, I agree that it is extrememly important to pay attention to the way we (the rest of us) feel motivated to make this a story of individuals’ “intentions.” (Was the officer profiling? Was Gates race-baiting? Those are the “intentional” questions that immediately frame our interpretations of the scene, and which perhaps aren’t the best questions for disclosing everything that was transpiring there.) I think it’s pretty clear that the policeman didn’t handle this situation in the best way possible, but it doesn’t seem like he handled it in the worst way possible, either. Ditto for Gates. I agree with you that it was probably the po-po’s embarrassment and felt-impotence in the presence of the gathered crowd that pushed this story (and the arresting officer) over the edge, which just serves to reinforce your point that “race” is a complex reality that we ALWAYS encounter as already-“raced” beings… that is, as members (or non-members) of a group, in the presence of “thirds” (and fourths and fifths and thousandths and so on), watching and being-watched.

    One point that you didn’t mention, but which I’ve seen commented upon elsewhere, is the class issue. That is, Gates’ experience as a black man in America (Harvard prof, local celebrity, posh Cambridge neighborhood) is markedly different from the black men that constitute the population recorded in many of the statistics you cite. This is, of course, why Gates can say to the police officer: “Do you know who I am? You don’t know who you’re messing with”– comments which would never pass the lips of 99% of other racially-profiled black men. My guess is that those comments by Gates are what have really gotten under the skin of a lot of white people reading this story… white people who need to read your piece here.

    Comment by Dr. J | July 21, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks Dr. J, and I agree with you about the class issue, which I alluded to but did not explore. That is also what I’m getting at when I bring the housing market into the mix.

    I think I was trying to do a little too much in this blog — doing the Marxist critique of race in terms of capital (i.e., housing market) and at the same time doing the Lacanian/Zizekian critique of race in terms of the Other in a way that (I think) complicates Althusser’s notion of interpellation. I also know Topspun over at http://sevenred.net/ is doing a lot of research on crowd theory, which is way out of my league, but maybe someday I’ll understand it. In my defence, I wrote this blog post rather hastily immediately after the news broke.

    The issue of intention, I think, is important because it helps us evaluate Barack Obama’s recent judgement of this case that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly.” Here’s the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/22/obama-on-skip-gates-arres_n_243250.html

    I’m worried about that sentence because, though I agree with it, I think it will be taken out of context by the mainstream media in a way that will alienate some of Obama’s own constituencies (i.e. some police), and I also think his contextualization of that statement when he talks about legislation in Illinois to improve policing techniques at the end of his answer came to late. So, if I were to write this post today, I would begin with the question, “What does it mean to say that a police officer acted stupidly?”

    But I applaud Obama for having the guts to stand with Gates and criticize the police officer, even though I agree with you that it wasn’t just the officer who acted stupidly. Neither behaved in a way I would call laudable or impressive, but both behaved in a way that is understandable. The key difference here (which Obama rightly implies) is that a citizen in his own home is legally allowed to throw a fit, whereas police officers on duty are not.

    Meanwhile, here are a couple other interesting reactions to the event that were published less than a day after I wrote my blog:

    http://www.thenation.com/blogs/notion/454282/skip_gates_and_the_post_racial_project

    http://www.theroot.com/views/what-do-you-call-black-man-phd

    Comment by steventhomas | July 23, 2009 | Reply


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