So I'm reading John McWhorter's reaction to Professor Gates' recent run-in with the Cambridge Police Department, and it occurs to me: Are we missing a salient piece of this puzzle? (H/t Chris Bodenner at The Dish.) No doubt, Professor Gates' race played a role in the zealous stupidity* of some of Cambridge's finest a few days ago. But are we looking past the fact that a certain percentage of cops are -- how to put this delicately -- complete assholes?
I realize that Radley Balko generally has the asshole-cop angle covered, but bear with me because this post isn't really about asshole cops. Well, not entirely at least.
McWhorter relates the following experience:
Or, even the closest thing I have experienced to what Gates did, as I recounted in Losing the Race. The time is 1998:
One night at about one in the morning I was walking to a convenience store. I was in jeans, sneakers and a short-sleeved button-down shirt open over a T-shirt. I had a few days' worth of stubble. I crossed a two-lane street far from the traffic light or crosswalk, and when I saw a car coming at about 25 yards away I broke into a quick trot to get across before it got to where I was.
I hadn't realized that the car was a police car, and the officer quickly turned on the siren, made a screeching U-turn and pulled up to me on the other side of the street. The window rolled down, revealing a white man who would have been played by Danny Aiello if it had been a movie. "You always cross streets whenever you feel like it like that?" he sneered. "I'm sorry, officer," I said; "I wasn't thinking." "Even in front of a police car?" he growled threateningly. My stomach jumped, and I realized that at that moment, despite being a tenured professor at an elite university, to this man I was a black street thug, a "youth."
I simply cannot imagine him stopping like this if a white man of the same age in the same clothes with the same stubble had done the exact same thing; he was trawling through a neighborhood which, unfortunately, does sometimes harbor a certain amount of questionable behavior by young black men on that street at that time of night, and to him, the color of my skin rendered me a suspect.
Maybe race played a role in McWhorter's case. Race in America is a devilish vine: it creeps into and around everything, and you'll never know for certain that race is the but-for until the tree is uprooted or the foundation cracked.
Yet, being treated rudely by the cops is a pretty common experience. It even happens to white people! I'm pretty sure I've had the exact same interaction as McWhorter had -- a cop stops you for a pretty tenuous reason, acts like an ass, and then gives you a lecture. In fact, if we make this a battle of anecdotes, I'm feeling confident that I can beat McWhorter with my asshole cop stories.
To bemoan the fact that white people get treated rudely too or to battle it out with asshole cop anecdotes, however, is to miss the point completely. Trading anecdotes is seldom the path to enlightenment. Anecdotes are particularly unhelpful when discussing race. That's because being a racist is effectively being an asshole: rude, perplexing, unthinking, and unthoughtful. And we all have a little bit -- OK, sometimes a lot -- of asshole in us. Every story you tell about an asshole will have some asshole comeback. (As an aside, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is ridiculously under-counting the percentage of racists at 35-40%; it's more like 100%. We're all a little bit racist; the difference is in degree and self-recognition.)
We should stop trying to categorize events as being caused either exclusively by race or not at all by race. If you view racism as all or nothing, you'll either always see it or never see it. The fact of the matter is that racism is, but that racism is seldom all. The candid answer is that, if race played a role in McWhorter's or Gate's experiences, it probably didn't play an exclusive role. This isn't to shift the blame or minimize the impact of race, but to recognize that people are complicated. Any theory that demands that people be simple -- he's racist / he's just an asshole -- is going to oversimplify. And, ultimately, obscure.
I realize that a lot of people recognize this in private. But we won't make much progress until we start expressing it in public, in so-called "mixed" company. (I think that's one reason why I find Coates' blog such an interesting project: Coates doesn't shy from the nuance, but he also doesn't let nuance deprive him of an opinion.)
P.s. in the same vein as the racist's "but some of my best friends are black!", I add that my uncle is a retired police chief for a town in Rhode Island. I would no more disown my asshole uncle** than, well, President Obama would disown his white grandmother. Or something like that. Let the healing begin!
P.p.s. Regarding the title, it bears noting that the next line from the punk poet-laureate of Brooklyn (nee Berkeley) is: "I am more concerned with what we're drinking." Which I am! (A cultivated love of booze is among my better traits.)
*My instaview on Gates' arrest is similar to David Bernstein's: Even if the cops are telling the truth -- and, candidly, I don't know why we should believe them over Gates -- the cops are still in the wrong.
**Just kidding, Unc.
UPDATE: Corrected a typo. Also, see this, which is simply incredible. Why does Albert Lopez Sr., the cop in the story, still have a job? There are excusable lapses in judgment and there is .... what Office Lopez did. (H/t Ugh.)