Sunday, August 02, 2009

How race doesn't perish in America

The institutions and power structures conserving white supremacy know how to defend themselves. The police, always able to draw on the immense cultural capital supplied by the charismatic good guy television cops, know how to make a victim disappear. They don't need shallow graves, obviously - it's just enough to prove to enough people, however mendaciously, that the victim was asking for it, thoroughly deserved it. They behaved suspiciously. Amadou Diallo made those cops shoot forty one rounds at him. Sean Bell did something that demanded those fifty shots. The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his own home is one of the many daily, petty, grinding acts of oppression and discrimination that the police had to prove was warranted, was necessary.

So, the story is roughly as follows: someone passing Gates' home notices two men lurking suspiciously near the front door of the place, and suspects they may be burglars. She calls the cops, and when prompted about the 'race' of the possible suspects, says that one of them as possibly "kind of Hispanic, but I'm not really sure", but she didn't see the other one. The police arrive at the residence with this racial profiling in mind. Sgt James Crowley establishes that the person located in Gates' home is none other than Gates himself. He is legally situated in his own house. He identifies himself. He has a Harvard ID. When told to step outside, Gates either emphatically refuses (Crowley's claim) or demands the officer's number and identification which is withheld, and follows the officer to his front porch (Gates' testimony). Either way, he is cuffed, arrested, and charged with 'disorderly conduct' (a nebulous catch-all 'crime' that police use to criminalise anyone they don't like).

Crowley claims that Gates did something to provoke being charged with 'disorderly conduct'. He claims that Gates was constantly yelling, that he wouldn't let the officer radio in the details of his ID, and that he referred to the officer's 'mama' in an off-hand way. He reckons that Gates learned to talk like this from watching 'Good Times' as a little boy. None of this is rank criminal behaviour - but that doesn't matter because it doesn't even appear to be true. The audio doesn't feature Gates yelling and screaming, calling out Sgt Crowley's revered mother, and so on. As Gates himself put it: "Does it sound logical that I would talk about the mother of a big white guy with a gun? I'm 5-7 and 150 pounds. I don’t walk on ice, much less (expletive) with some cop in my kitchen. I don't want another hip replacement." The district attorney, evidently embarrassed by the paucity of evidence, threw out the charges.

Obama - he's a black guy, right? - was asked to say something quotable about it. With his typical smoothness and prevarication he said something that wasn't completely monstrous. He acknowledged the history of police discrimination of African Americans and Latinos. He said that even if the cop wasn't being racist, it was at least stupid and wrong. He said nothing provocative and nothing that wasn't obvious - which turns out to be a relief, as I'm quite sure that either Bubba or Bush would have responded with some empty cracker remarks. The media rounded on Obama - who has surely done enough to demonstrate his low opinion of most African Americans, and black people generally, particularly if they are poor - saying that he had made a gaffe. Their more cartoonish commentariat creations blustered with insensible grief at the idea that there could possibly be a charge of racism made against anyone in America today - Obama is the proof that the whole issue is just some water-cooler talk, or misguided hysteria by folks of a certain chromatic persuasion. The institutions of 'law enforcement' attacked him for sticking his big brown nose in their business. Now Obama, responding to this chorus of who-the-hell-does-he-think-he-is, has invited Crowley along with Gates round to his pad for a beer. Has Crowley demonstrated that he is worthy of such an honour? Is he at least as yielding as the president? No. He thinks he did the right thing, and would do it again. Of course Crowley won't apologise. He can't possibly, even if he thinks he was wrong, because he would be letting the boys down. He would be letting people think that there is something wrong with smacking a black man around in America.

Frank Rich, a fairly typical NYT liberal, thinks that the institutions of white supremacy (he doesn't call them that) are panicking, because soon America will be a white minority country. He says that the pretence that there is no racism, coupled with the insistence that the real racists are black people, expresses blind terror about the sunny post-racial future that awaits America. But this doesn't make any sense. As David Roediger has pointed out, whiteness can be 'earned' in a manner of speaking; it can be 'worked toward'. Just as the Irish became white, just as Jews became white, just as Italians and Poles and Hungarians and other migrants from non-Anglo Europe became white, so can Hispanics - some of them, anyway, enough to keep that supposedly expansive middle class teeming with 'whites', though there may be a confusing and vexed journey as this solution to the 'race question' is elaborated. The real issue is not fear that demographic change will neuter the racists. The attempt is what it always has been - to maintain the prolonged, and only partially successful counterrevolution against the gains of the Sixties. To ensure that race does matter, by pretending that it doesn't. To ensure that the class system that they so admire, the system of 'free enterprise' with its colour-coded allotment of rewards and privileges, is strengthened. And to convert every anti-racist movement, including the vote for Obama, into an alibi for white supremacy. Once they veiled themselves in hoods and cloaks. Now they veil themselves in ostentatious 'colour-blindness'.