What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

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Monday, August 17, 2009
*explanation below

It’s almost passed into obscurity - but before it fades completely, leaving the equivalent of the grin of a Cheshire cat, a thought or two.

It’s been years since I last bumped into and spoke to Lynn Sweet. I can’s say that I really knew her - just that on occasion we happened to be attending the same meeting - she as a Chicago based newspaper reporter and me in another capacity. I mention it only because on the few occasions when we actually did meet and chatted, she struck me as a pleasant, efficient and fair minded reporter who had little interest in the sensational side of news reporting. So it was a bit of a surprise that given the privilege of asking the last question at Obama’s July 22nd news conference, she opted to bring up an issue that might well have been one or two news cycles away from being "yesterday’s news" and opened the door into it becoming -mat least for a while - the new "Gate De Jour" - the Crowley-Gates Gate!!

Of course Obama could have avoided the question. As he made clear, he wasn’t there - but he still made the stupid comment that the local police acted stupidly - setting off a firestorm about "racial profiling." I was as far away from the incident as the president, but I’d give odds that I know what happened. The professor didn’t know what the cop was doing there. He was almost certainly suffering from jet lag and he was in his own home and here was a police officer asking stupid questions Of course he didn’t know that there had been a report of a possible break in and the cop didn’t know who the professor was - and somewhere along the line the conversation became heated and the cop asked the professor to calm down which probably made him more angry to the point where he committed an unofficial criminal offense - DPO - disrespecting a police officer.

The fact that he was handcuffed and dragged down to the police station and held there for a while was pretty close to inexcusable. The cops are supposed to be trained to handle this kind of situation. Once he was convinced that Gates lived there and that no break in had taken place, Crowley should have backed off and left. His decision to do what he did however, had nothing to do with "racial profiling." I don’t claim to have any particular expertise on the subject, but my understanding of racial profiling would be Crowley or some other cop - spotting Gates approaching his house and stopping him and asking him what he was doing there. Assuming that Gates wasn’t acting suspiciously - like crouching down behind some bushes and then weaving his way towards the house in a manner that would suggest he didn’t want to be seen. But to suggest that the fact that the cop got mad and arrested Gates had anything to do with the man’s skin color is, to me, an expression of paranoia.

I once saw a woman - not a block from my home, who had obviously been pulled over for a traffic violation, being handcuffed - presumably as a prelude to being hauled off to the local hoosegow. I couldn’t overhear the conversation that preceded that action, but clearly the women had become hysterical and was screaming at the officer and I guess handcuffing her was his reaction to what he probably considered an extreme case of DPO. She was white - but had she been black, would that have been racial profiling? Some would say so without a second thought. And that has happened in the Gates case - but what is truly surprising and disturbing to me is that it isn’t just coming from the average man on the street who might - perhaps for good reason - harbor deep distrust for the police - but from people who should know better,

Distinguished and respected black columnists, commentators and assorted pundits, took to the airways to decry the incident as something that only happened because Gates was a black man - or at the very least, that it wouldn’t have happened if Gates had been white. I heard one such commentator opine that such a thing wouldn’t have happened if the home owner had been Henry Kissinger!! Seriously! President Obama, whose response to Lynn Sweet’s question had created a racial mountain out of a quasi color blind molehill, backed away from his assertion that the police acted "stupidly" and suggested that the entire incident presented an opportunity for a "teaching moment." There have been a few cynical responses to the idea that there is something of value to be learned regarding race relations from professor Gates’ arrest - among them the lesson that you just don’t mouth off at a police officer no matter what. And that’s a lesson well learned no matter what your skin color or that of the police officer.

But sadly, I think there is something to be learned from this incident - and that is to understand the deeply held feeling of African Americans - from the most successful and admired to the man in the street - that their color continues to play a negative role in their encounters with police - even in an era of an African American president. How else would you explain the belief of award winning journalist Eugene Robinson that race "must" have played a part in professor Gates’ arrest ? I may not have his exact words down but that was the sentiment he expressed in an appearance on MSNBC shortly after the incident - and to a certain extent -even though I have described such a reactions as expression of paranoia - I can understand how he could come to believe something so illogical. I think of the history of the world’s Jewry - of which I am a member - and how, after centuries of oppression and decades of illogical discrimination , many of us have become sensitized to the point where we see anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist. Criticism of Israel for example. While it is clear that there are bigots who hide their anti-Semitism behind criticism of Israel - legitimate criticism is frequently perceived by many American Jews as a form of anti-Semitism.

The Gates affair would appear to be a clear case of being unfairly arrested for refusing to stop arguing with a cop - having nothing to do with the color of his skin. Yeah - maybe it wouldn’t have happened if the home owner had been Henry Kissinger. The cop would probably have been scared out of his pants in the face of a stream of invective in a guttural German accent and would have been happy to get out of there with his dignity intact. But now that we have been made aware of the belief that even a Kissinger would have been hauled off in handcuffs had his skin been black, we should all take a step back and think about how far we still have to travel in healing the residual pain of decades of racial discrimination.

Quite a distance I would say. And the road probably won’t be a smooth one.