Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Gates Mess, racism, and tabloid journalism online

(Because JimC already stole "GatesGate")

Hot times all around with the needless arrest of Henry Louis Gates, an internationally renowned professor on African-American culture and history who right now probably wishes he left Harvard for Princeton at the same time Cornel West did. Per ABC

Police responding to a call about "two black males" breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there — Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar.

I'm stopping there, because the consensus facts stop there. Which door he was entering, how long he was there...all that information quickly devolved conflicting reports, as they say. The police are saying that Gates was confrontational and unhelpful when they responded, which resulted in his arrest. How confrontational he was is unknown, and how confrontational he should be allowed to be is a matter of opinion (though calling African-American police racist for confronting an African-American doesn't make much sense to me). Gates was demanding an apology but has apparently walked back to a rather mild joint statement with the Cambridge cops that spreads fault/responsibility all around:

The City of Cambridge, the Cambridge Police Department, and Professor Gates acknowledge that the incident of July 16, 2009 was regrettable and unfortunate. This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department. All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances.

I personally think that Gates backs off talk of institutional racism, only in cases of strong generosity, or lack of a case. Meanwhile, the Herald is enjoying its best day since the Manny trade.

However, the local blogosphere has quickly grasped at their own beliefs and scant rumors in the press to invent the rest (kudos to the exception, one the best blogs out there -- Massachusetts Liberal). The Cambridge papers couldn't even get the time of the arrest right. Over at BMG, a usually passionate but measured place, accusations are flying. Perhaps the Boston Globe is in league with the Cambridge cops to cover up the racism of this whole thing. We all know how the Globe hates those lengthy investigations of unsavory institutions that so often result in a Pulitzer.

But what disturbs me the most is the instant assumption that the woman who first called the police did so because she is a racist. It's closer to a conservative caricature of progressives than anything else. David Kravitz, a normally cool-headed blogger at BMG, makes this assumption on zero proof. While I don't always agree with David, I was taken aback that simply phoning the police because a man of a different skin color is breaking into a house makes you a racist. If a man of any skin color is ramming his shoulder against the front door of the house across from me with the car running, I'm calling the cops.

I have no idea why Whalen called the police. Heck, we're going on a claim by the Herald so I'm not 100% convinced it was her in the first place. However, I tend to think that in this day two individuals of different races can work toward different purposes without racism being the cause.

It's well known how deleterious an accusation of racism can today. Usually, there is some proof offered, but today all we to go on is an unconfirmed claim by a substandard tabloid paper about a woman being vigilant -- perhaps over-vigilant but again we don't know -- about her neighborhood.

If Whalen comes out of her door and starts running off her mouth à la Louise Day Hicks, then she fulfills the label. But to label a private citizen as racist based solely on a Herald report that she called the cops when seeing two men breaking into a house is entirely beyond the pale. But for right now, if some of these claims are echoed ("this all started with Whalen", according to a Globe commentator), the greatest victim of this episode will not be Henry Louis Gates or the Cambridge Police Department, but Ms. Whalen -- the party with the fewest resources to defend itself in all of this.

Nice job, guys.

PS: Gawker says that Whalen is a fundraiser for Harvard Magazine. So either she decided to harass one of her employer's most well-known and recognizable employees for no reason, or made an honest mistake. Either way, the racism hysteria (which naturally attracted Al Sharpton's attention) has a good chance of endangering this lady's job.


Daniel said...

"Calling black officers racist doesn't make sense"
The officer at the center of the controversy, who was on the scene first and who eventually made the dubious decision to arrest Gates, is white. I don't think there's been much dispute about that. He was the main guy.

Quriltai said...

Agreed. However, when Gates stepped outside and continued with his verbiage, he was confronting a number of Cambridge officers, including non-white cops.

Bob Neer said...

"Her neighborhood." I believe the woman in question lives someplace else (Malden?) but works in the neighborhood. Just a point of reference.