8.15.2011

heroic white people, "i am not a racist," and other thoughts on some old news

I recently read a few unrelated items that dealt with racism, equality and civil rights in the US, which raised some thoughts I want to share. This time I'm purposely burying the lede, putting the easy stuff up front.

In this essay and review, author and filmmaker Nelson George reviews "The Help," the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's popular novel about a white woman from the US South and her two African American maids. I vowed long ago never to see another Hollywood movie putting a heroic, uplifting gloss on American racism, and I will have no trouble skipping this one. But George uses the release of "The Help" to look at how the civil rights movement has been portrayed in film.

In comments on an earlier movie-related post, we discussed the Hollywood trend of depicting white people as the agents of African American emancipation, allowing white audiences to feel good about themselves and their country's history. George writes:
To protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation. Films of this stripe are legion, though the most irritating example remains “Mississippi Burning,” in which two F.B.I. agents are at the center of an investigation into the murder of civil rights activists. It was a bitter pill for movement veterans to swallow since the agents’ boss, J. Edgar Hoover, was as vicious an opponent as any Southern Dixiecrat. Though not as egregious, both Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” and the adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” fit this formula.
I was pleased to see "Mississippi Burning" highlighted, as I remember seeing that film and the reaction it. Much later, reading Taylor Branch, I learned that one of the white heroes of that film did exactly what was depicted: he de-escalated violence at great personal risk. Whether that detail justifies portraying the FBI as a friend to civil rights, evne part of The Struggle, is another story.

I was also pleased to see George name the late Henry Hampton's multi-part documentary "Eyes on the Prize" as the best film portrayal of the civil rights movement. George describes it as "a monumental 14-hour television series that wove news and documentary footage, photographs and first-person interviews into the most ambitious cinematic narrative of the movement to date." Allan and I watched it in the 1980s when it first ran on PBS, and we have the companion oral-history book. I highly recommend finding "Eyes on the Prize" on DVD. It's an education and a half.

* * * *

A new book by Randall Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency sounds interesting. The reviewer, Dwight Garner, writes:
Mr. Kennedy, who is African-American, has long been among the most incisive American commentators on race. His books, which include Race, Crime, and the Law (1997) and the best seller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002), tend to arrive in full academic dress (his new one has footnotes and endnotes) and seem to be carved from intellectual granite, yet they have human scale. When it suits him, he can deploy references to Stevie Wonder and Kanye West as well as to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mahalia Jackson and Malcolm X. He has the full panoply of the black experience in America at his fingertips.
I was particularly interested in these two brief excerpts:
"That the nation’s first black president defends separate but equal in the context of same-gender intimacy is bitterly ironic." . . .

During Justice Sotomayor's confirmation, Mr. Kennedy observes, Mr. Obama pretended not to care that his choice was a liberal. Here he contrasts Mr. Obama unfavorably with, of all people, George W. Bush. He writes: "George Bush openly said that he preferred conservative jurists. By doing so he reinforced the legitimacy of being a conservative in the public’s mind. Obama, by contrast, took care to avoid championing liberalism in the judiciary, thereby contributing to its continued marginalization and weakness."
* * * *

That book review referenced the incident in which Henry Louis Gates, the distinguished African-American scholar, writer and social critic, was arrested on suspicion of breaking and entering - his own home.

Refreshing my memory of the details of that incident, I followed a few links, and a few more, and the next thing I knew, I'm writing about something that happened two years ago. It's ancient history by internet standards, but that's one of the great things about blogging: we can write about whatever we want, and help keep our collective memory alive.

Three points came up for me.

First, I was struck by a few quotes from the emails sent by Justin Barrett. Barrett, you may recall, is the former Boston police officer and Massachusetts National Guard member who referred to Gates as "a banana-eating jungle monkey" and to a newspaper column critical of the incident as "jungle monkey gibberish". What struck me was Barrett's claim that he was not racist.
Barrett, in a television interview, said that he used "a poor choice of words" in the email. He added, "I did not mean to offend anyone." Barrett has also stated, "I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist."
We've heard words like these so many times that they barely register. We scoff at them, and rightly so, but let's take a closer look. What does it mean when someone uses hateful, racist speech, then claims "I am not a racist"? Or, as is often the case, begins a sentence with "I'm not a racist, but...", followed by clear examples of their own racism?

One possibility is that the person is lying. In this scenario, Barrett knows perfectly well that he is racist. He hates black people, he knows he hates black people, and he knows that expressing his hatred can get him into trouble - said trouble generally blamed on over-sensitivity, "PC," and "these days". Barrett's "choice of words" was "poor" because it got him in trouble. (In fact, it cost him his job.) That is, it's not the hatred that's unacceptable, it's the expression of the hatred.

This theory raises the related possibility - probability, in my opinion - that Barrett does not, in fact, have "friends of every type of culture and race". Boston, like many US cities, is deeply divided by race, and police department culture is perhaps second only to fire department culture and Klan meetings as the last place one should look for enlightened attitudes. Beyond that, we live in a world where most people's friends - not acquaintances or co-workers, but friends - are from within their own culture. Factor in Barrett's attitudes - something made him call Gates a "banana-eating jungle monkey" - and I'd wager next month's rent that Barrett does not actually have friends from "every type of culture and race you can name". And he knows it. And he lied. This is the simplest possibility.

Another possibility is that Barrett is honestly voicing his own contradictory self-image: he does hate African American people, but in his mind, this doesn't make him a racist.

This makes me wonder: does anyone think they are racist? Or is racism is only something other people do? A racist ex-relative of mine (through marriage and, thankfully, divorce) claimed he wasn't a racist because, "Black people come in my store, and I treat them like any other customer." Mighty white of him to take the darkie's money! And this somehow cancelled out all the overtly hateful comments we heard from him, all the time. Perhaps if you're not actually grabbing a shotgun and attending a midnight lynching, you're not racist. And who knows, maybe not even then.

No one is free from all prejudice. We live in a racist, sexist (Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, etc.) world and it exerts its lingering influence on all of us, to varying degrees. But, I believe, most of us who strongly value equality have consciously confronted our own racism, and tried to deal with it. And perhaps people who have never done so persist both in their racism and their belief that they are free of racism.

* * * *

By the way, if you've never read Barrett's email, you might want to; if you have, it's worth refreshing your memory (here). It's quite a bit more virulent than the media summaries acknowledged. The "jungle monkey" comments became the buzzword, but the entire email is crammed with racism and sexism, from the use of "ax" for "ask," to calling the Boston Globe writer a "hot little bird," and the repeated suggestion that she should be doing what Barrett clearly believes is the subservient job of serving him coffee and donuts. The sexism and racism is folded together in a rich stew of outsider resentment.
My last point counters your final 2 paragraphs, in which you state Gates is "this immensely famous expert on race" - you really have to be kidding me? Famous for what? Expert why and says who? What has he done for me and my family? What has he done for the law enforcement community or military veterans or to secure freedoms and our borders in this country? What has he done to help limit and reduce my income tax? . . . You mention Gates' charges were dropped but that it was too late to stop the damage? Damage? Still kidding? You need to serve a day with the infantry and get swarmed by black gnats while marking your sector. Or you just need to get slapped, look in the mirror and admit, "Wow. I am a failure. I am a follower. Who am I kidding?"
The word "entitled" is thrown around a lot these days, wielded against anyone suspected of being middle class, liberal, educated... or belonging to the general category of "people I disagree with and feel threatened by". But there's a kind of entitlement I haven't seen mentioned, as it treads on sacrosanct ground and turns the elitism card on its head: the entitlement of people who have served in the military or law enforcement to trump any one else's perspective. It translates roughly as: "I was in the military [or have worked in law enforcement, or both], I assume you never have, therefore you know nothing and your opinions are worthless. Only people who have served in the military actually know anything."

I've seen and heard this only from people who have been employed in these two fields. I grant that being in the military or in law enforcement could lead to experiences not likely to be encountered by those outside those fields. But this tendency to believe that experience endows special knowledge of all situations, and that knowledge renders them more worthy to opine than others with different experience reads like a huge chip on the shoulder, a menacing inferiority. And an entitlement.

* * * *

The second thought recalling Gates' arrest brought up is the persistent belief that every story needs "balance," and every point of view is equally legitimate. In the US, when more than a million people march on Washington to support abortion rights, the mainstream media will devote equal time to five anti-choice counter-demonstrators standing on a street corner. Reviewing some of the news coverage around this story, I noticed it was accepted wisdom that "both parties over-reacted". Police sergeant James Crowley may have over-reacted, but surely Professor Gates should have been less angry, less confrontational and more compliant.

But incidents don't occur in vacuums without context. Given the long, ugly history of law enforcement treatment of African Americans - given the rampant racist stereotyping in both law and practice - given everything from Howard Beach to the tea party - I don't know how Gates reasonably could have been expected to behave otherwise.

And lastly, another note about balance, facts, race, and the sanctity of law enforcement. After the Gates arrest, Barack Obama said this:
I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.
This comment drew an outcry from law enforcement officials, and there was a lot of pressure on Obama to back off those statements. And of course he did. I remembered his later statement as more back-pedaling than it actually was. Obama said:
I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically — and I could have calibrated those words differently. . . . I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
My point is not the pressures Obama faced in commenting on anything race-related. It's this: when he said "That's just a fact," he was correct. It is a fact. In my post the definition of a police state depends on where you live - what country, and what postal code, there are links to stories and statistics about "Jim Crow policing".
An analysis by the [New York Civil Liberties Union] revealed that more than 2 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2010, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports. . .

* The NYPD stopped, questioned and/or frisked over 508,540 people in 2006, an increase from just 97,296 in 2002.

* Even using "the most liberal assumptions" about the national average when it comes to the rate of the public's contact with police officers, the Rand Corporation’s study notes, New York should have had "roughly 250,000 to 330,000 stops rather than the 500,000 stops actually recorded."

* Only 10 percent of stops led to summonses or arrests. The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers questioned and frisked by the NYPD were engaged in no criminal wrongdoing.

* As compared to a 1999 study by then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, which reported that police stopped nine people for each arrest they made, twice as many people now are being stopped for each arrest.

Disproportionate Stops of People of Color

* 89 percent of those stopped in 2006 were people of color. 55 percent of the stops were of black people – more than double their percentage of the population – and 30 percent were of Latinos.

* Stops of whites, who number about 3.6 million according to recent census estimates, amounted to only 2.6 percent of the white population. By contrast, stops of blacks, who number about 2.2 million people, represented 21.1 percent of the entire black population.

* Residents of Brownsville's 73rd Precinct and Harlem's 28th Precinct had a 30 to 36 percent chance of being stopped and questioned by police in 2006. Citywide, the average was about 6 percent.

* A total of 2,756 cops filed 54 percent, or approximately 274,000, of all stop-and-frisk reports in 2006. Of that group, 15 percent, or about 413 officers, stopped no whites.

Disproportionate Outcomes of Stops for People of Color

* In 2006, 21.5 blacks were stopped for each arrest of a black person as opposed to only 18.2 whites stopped for each white arrest.

* Cops found guns, drugs, or stolen property on whites about twice as often as they did on black suspects.

* Whites were stopped on suspicion of possessing a weapon at a rate lower than their weapon-possession arrest rate. Blacks were stopped on suspicion of possessing a weapon at a rate greater than their weapon-possession arrest rate. These findings indicate that cops were more often unjustified in stopping black people on suspicion of having weapons.

Disproportionate Use of Force on People of Color

* Police used force – i.e. handcuffing, frisking, drawing weapon, restraining – about 50 percent more often on blacks than on whites in 2006.

* 45 percent of blacks and Latinos who were stopped were also frisked, compared with only 29 percent of whites.
The ACLU has a lot of info about racial profiling: in Arizona, in Georgia, in Chicago, at the border.

6 comments:

Amy said...

Great post, and I am still digesting a lot of it and need to go back and re-read parts of again. A few reactions:

I saw both the articles you mention at the top of the post, the Nelson article and the review of Kennedy's book. I read some of the former and all of the latter. (I meant to go back to the former, but have not yet had a chance, but thanks for giving the overview.)

As for The Help, people have been telling me to read this book and, now, to see the movie, and I have refused. People do not understand why I don't want to read a book by a white woman telling stories about African American women who were underpaid and discriminated against while providing support and love to white children. I read enough reviews of both the book and the movie to know that I would be infuriated.

As for Randall Kennedy, his insights about Obama are, although not shocking, so sad. I know that you warned me not to have optimism about Obama, but nevertheless I did, and I am beyond disappointed by how spineless he has been with regard to matters of principle and how gutless and useless he has been as a leader and a politician. And yet...I am sure I will vote for him in 2012.

laura k said...

People do not understand why I don't want to read a book by a white woman telling stories about African American women who were underpaid and discriminated against while providing support and love to white children.

What she said!

Re Obama, it's never wrong to have hope and to be optimistic. My warnings and cynicism were not about him personally, but about the system at large, which is far more powerful than any one man. But in addition to that, you're right, he's a jellyfish. And worse.

laura k said...

* I suppose some of my cynicism was about Obama personally, in the sense that no one who would institute the radical, necessary changes would ever become POTUS - so if he prevailed through the system, that therefore meant he would not change it. If that makes sense.

deang said...

Cops found guns, drugs, or stolen property on whites about twice as often as they did on black suspects.

This is so important for people to be aware of. So many people assume that if Blacks are stopped more by police it must be because they commit more crimes. They don't.

allan said...

Or, as is often the case, begins a sentence with "I'm not a racist, but...", followed by clear examples of their own racism?

I don't always start my sentences with "I'm not a racist" ...

laura k said...

I don't always start my sentences with "I'm not a racist" ...

Not only is that excellent, but it's the only good one on the page!