Friday, July 31, 2009

Unpacking the Racial Narratives

This may be a few days late, but I've been chewing on the whole Gates arrest thing for awhile now, and trying to figure out what I want to say, or what needs to be said about it. Fortunately, I don't actually have to do much of that work now, as Judith Warner has sort of done it for me. An excerpt from a recent post of hers:

In his story of their verbal tussle, Crowley describes himself as overwhelmed by the noise in Gates’s kitchen, as the black professor loudly accused the white cop of racial profiling. Seeing that Gates could not be persuaded to use an inside voice, Crowley retreated to the street, inviting Gates to join him outdoors.

“Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” Gates allegedly told him.

Gates denied referring to Crowley’s mama. “The idea that I would, in a vulnerable position talk about the man’s mother is absurd,” he told Gayle King of Sirius radio. “I don’t talk about people’s mothers … You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop, let alone with a white police officer … I think they did some historical research, and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’ ”

I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s very likely that Crowley really does believe he heard the insult to his mother. And that’s because Gates wasn’t the only one in that house, on that day, whose thoughts were traveling well-worn grooves chiseled by race. Both men were, consciously or not, following scripts in their heads, stories of vulnerability and grievance much more meaningful than their actual exchange.

At this point in the news cycle, President Obama and Gates himself have asked us to dial down the drama and, as Gates himself put it, to “move on.”

But I don’t think we should be so quick to reduce this sad, important and deeply symbolic incident to what the French would call a fait divers.

The clash in Cambridge about ID and racial profiling, about identity and expectation and respect was just a snippet of our culture’s ongoing meta-narrative about race. Its major themes played through the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, and showed up , last week, when Barack Obama, speaking for once not as the apotheosis of “post-racial” America but instead as a man who’s spent nearly 48 years Living While Black, was labeled “unpresidential.” Each chapter in this larger story shows us, time and again, what Sotomayor’s critics refused to concede: that how we all think, what we see, how we reason and react are directly determined by who we are. And some of who we are is conditioned by our race.

Had Gates been a white man, approached in his home and abruptly told to step outside, he might well have bristled at the cold officiousness of the officer’s tone, but he probably wouldn’t have thought, or known, that to leave the haven of his house would expose him to the possibility of sudden arrest.

Had he been white, a request for ID would probably not have sounded like an insult, or worse, a potential danger. It would probably not have stirred up memories of black men like Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who in 1999 was killed by police in the Bronx as he reached for his wallet. He very likely would not have seen what Gates was sure he saw in Crowley’s face, as the cop scanned the professor’s
Harvard ID, trying to take in the fact that the man before him was not an intruder. “He’s trying to unpack a narrative … He was so sure that he had a catch,” Gates recalled to King. “That is when everything turned.”

We don’t know precisely what was going through Crowley’s mind. But his report and later statements seem to attest to a greatly outsized sense of vulnerability and victimization.

Crowley demanded that the small, slight, cane-carrying professor come outside, he said, because he feared not living to make it home to his wife and children. A remark by Gates — “That’s none of your business” — appeared to sting him to the quick. And then there was that matter of his mama. “Speaking about my mother,” he said sadly to a sympathetic local pair of radio talk show hosts, “it’s just beyond words.”

I think Warner is onto something here. It does seem possible that both Gates and Warner sincerely believe the drastically different stories they tell. It's a common feature of failed interactions with the Other that rather than hearing their words and observing their actions, we hear and observe our own expectations of what this kind of person will say and do. As if our expectations and preconceptions are draped around that person like a robe, or a shroud, that obscures our vision of them, and only allows us to see and hear things from them that mesh with our preconception of them. Gadamer was preoccupied with this phenomenon where our ideal of the Other obscures that person from us and prevents true intersubjectivity and any possibility of a fusion of horizons:
What I was concerned with was why I experience my own limitation through the encounter with the Other, and why I must always learn to experience anew if I am ever to be in a position to surpass my limits.*
Sadly, I think this kind of "experiencing it anew," or attempting it anyway, is not the sort of thing that emerges from a media circus like the one surrounding Gates' arrest. Instead you get an increase in the polarization, and a glossing over of the deeper and more complex issues involved. Crowley diverts the blame by appealing to the fear he experienced and suggesting that Gates is overreacting and imagining himself to be the victim. Gates realizes the futility of having a truly constructive dialogue in which narratives are unpacked, and agrees that we should all move on. And the teachable moment becomes a blip in the news cycle.

What are the conditions that would make unpacking the narratives a possibility? I'm not sure. I would guess that moving away from the oversimplified terms in which we discuss these things would be a start. As I watched a portion of Lucia Whalen's tearful and defensive speech, I thought about how sad and counterproductive it is that we conceptualize racist behavior as being limited to overt behavior and explicitly racist thoughts. In this picture, unless one actually thinks to themselves "I hate black people and think they are inferior," they're not a racist. But to my mind, unquestioningly following the narratives and adhering to the script and clinging to the idealization of the Other to which you are accustomed is a far more insidious form of racism than that which is explicitly articulated.

There's no doubt in my mind that when Crowley interacted with Gates, he was interacting with a Black Man who was not being Properly Humble and Submissive to Police Authority. And make no mistake that Gates was arrested for Contempt of Cop, one of the worst crimes you can commit anywhere. Similarly, Gates was most likely interacting with White Cop rather than Crowley. And why wouldn't he, given the history of white cops and black men? So we can yammer on about race relations and who was to blame and who overreacted and who has a chip on their shoulder until the cows come home. But until we figure out how to make it the case that Sergeant Crowley, the person, can interact with Professor Gates, the person, and hear what he really says and see what he really does and get a sense of who he really is, we can expect these kinds of events to continue.

*"Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person" Continental Philosophy Review, July 2000.


  1. I had a teacher in high school who used to say "Ill see it when I believe it." This idea of imposing your understanding and expectations over the words and actions of the Other reminds me of that.

  2. I definitely think this event merits more careful and complex discussion, but it looks like it won't be receiving it in the mainstream anytime soon. I think this is a helpful way to approach it. I wonder how far the conception of "othering" has drifted from the Heidegger/Gadamer view.