Not as “Stupidly” as You Think: Obama and the Mistake People Most Often Make Talking About Race.


When Barack Obama spoke last week, above, on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., the president observed that “the Cambridge Police acted stupidly.”

That quote quickly became the one most widely reproduced, as I knew it would, eclipsing the visibility of almost anything he’d said in his preceding press conference, ostensibly about health care reform.

screen91I remember the exact moment I heard Obama utter those words. It was as though someone had played a horrible chord. While the statement was the closest he apparently went to expressing any sort of a feeling about the Gates incident, I immediately knew those words wouldn’t go down well at the police station. As most certainly realize by now, they didn’t, and Obama had to subsequently retract them. “I could’ve calibrated those words differently,” he said, right.

Two aspects of this, however, are absolutely fascinating to me:

1) Despite mistreating Skip Gates, Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, has not yet apologized to him. In fact, he has said, “That apology will never come from me as Jim Crowley. It won’t come from me as sergeant in the Cambridge Police Department. … I know what I did was right. I have nothing to apologize for.”

11fba5b339_crow_0723Yet, in the wake of Obama’s comments, Crowley, right, has received a phone call directly from the president, and accepted an invitation to the White House for a beer with Gates and the president, an invitation Gates has also accepted.

All of which tells me what I already know: The racism ROI is astounding.

2) Despite his typical eloquence and lucidity, Obama repeated one of the most frequently stated falsehoods about race: That people who commit racist acts are stupid.

Why do people say this?

Even more, why do people believe it?

No one says this about rude people. No one says, “Rude people are just stupid.” No one would believe such a thing as an explanation for the history of rudeness. No one says this about thieves. No one says this about killers.

Yet, racism, which arguably compiles diverse valences of rudeness, theft, murder, and a host of other evils into a fearsome megaweapon, is wielded only by stupidity?

Why would people believe that the race system—under which the overwhelming majority of the planet’s people, non-white ones, are dominated by its minority, white people—works through “ignorance”?

rednecksPart of it, certainly, is borne by long-time, frighteningly brutal associations between racism and the deep underclass—poor, uneducated white people; hillbillies, rednecks, and their ilk, right.

But does anyone imagine for a femtosecond that when the planetary range of racist effects, in all areas of activity—economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war—are tallied, the culprits are Southern hill folk? Like, they engineered the entire history of so-called Eurocentricity? The Berlin Conference? White Hollywood? The Tuskegee Experiment? Persistent Black and white disparities in health care, housing, and media? Bo did that?

Another part of it, I think, has to do with an underlying assumption, often, that, if a person was “stupid,” their actions were not carried out intentionally. (“Steve didn’t mean it…he was just being stupid.”)

jal747newcoloursarp750pixOf course, the supposition there is that the profound system of race is a conglomeration of accidental propositions—a whirlwind that went through a junkyard and formed a 747, right. However, I’d offer that any system which works well and precisely, coordinating richly over vast stretches of time and space, never does so “accidentally,” but with both planning and purpose.

It’s often said that we need “a national discussion on race,” and incidents like Gates’s typically heighten calls for the same.

Before Black people participate in any such thing, though—whatever “a national discussion on race” means—or, really, any similar dialogue, a lot more of us better get a more refined sense of the way that the racists, under the system of white supremacy, use words to utterly confuse the issue—and us.



#1 Bj Peak-Graham on 07.28.09 at 12:45 am

His home training was simply more effective than his professional training. Yeah, he knew what he was doing. Putting a “reggin” in his place.

#2 Relentless Aaron on 07.28.09 at 10:29 am

This is just PLAIN WRONG! President Obama there are MANY more pressing issues than this isolated error of judgement. THere are twenty times as many injustices that have been committed by police, and just as many erroneous disputes between police and civilians. Love you and what you’re about, Pres, but going after this issue (likely to save yourself the onslaught of headaches you attracted when addressing this the way you did) is just PLAIN WRONG.

My comments about the Gates incident:


#3 Kyra Gaunt on 07.28.09 at 10:36 am

Reminds me when ppl used to say Bush was stupid. If he was stupid, I wonder what he wld have done if he was smarter with WMD, Iraq, Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Dick Cheney, etc.

#4 Lena L. West on 07.28.09 at 12:48 pm

Preach. If it’s one thing I’ve learned by reading what you write and listening to what you say is that one of the chief tools of racism is confusing language – purposefully so, in fact. And, stupid people can’t pull that off at the racism-level for so long. Not by a long shot.

#5 Karuna on 07.28.09 at 1:16 pm

Just Tweeted you on this. Obama didn’t say “Just acted stupidly” when he made that aside. “Stupid” was ostensibly the first item on a long, multi-valent list of ways the Cambridge PD behaved. I agree that people need to understand the complexities of discussions about race, but two things:

1. Many people (especially white people) will not take the time to engage in a deeper discussion about race. They/we are just not personally invested enough to put in the work and may never understand the subtleties of how race works in our daily lives, and

2. In a case of clear racial profiling, with racial profiling being such a big problem in this country, sometimes a soundbite is going to have to suffice – and this one was pretty succinct.

However I do appreciate you staying on point and peeling off layers where they need to be peeled. Still, I agree with Obama that Cambridge PD acted stupidly…among other things.

#6 Corrine Edwards on 07.28.09 at 1:39 pm

It’s as if being ‘stupid’ excuses the racist for thier behaviour. OO sorry Sir’ I called you a racist name because I’m er.. Retarded, or have got ‘special needs’ or

I stupidly called the Banksters ‘criminals’ but they were just folowing thier religions doctrine.
I’m in U.K and people with learning difficulties have ‘special needs’
Retarded doesn’t have the same impact as in US!!

#7 Jason Kirk on 07.28.09 at 8:43 pm

Shouldn’t assume “stupidly” only refers to the racial aspect. The officer did, in fact, break Massachusetts law, which is stupid with or without race.

#8 Melyss'ah on 07.29.09 at 12:40 pm

The problem with this article, and many discussions on this topic, is it’s predicated on the notion that what the police officers did (such as we know anyway) was in fact racist. Relax. Hear me out.

In situations like these we tend to overlook a couple of other obvious facts, such as they were CALLED to the house BY A NEIGHBOR. If this is about race at all (which I don’t believe it is – and I’m Black) such allegations should fall at the feet of the person who initiated the chain of events in the first place. The police have an obligation to investigate.

Additionally, why isn’t Obama being brought to task on going out on a limb regarding his friend’s altercation with the cops, yet in Sean Bell’s case they were “doing their job”. Pisses me off.

This is a case of the police doing what they’re paid for. Even if this were an instance of the cops patrolling the neighborhood and happened to see Gates and his driver trying to force a door open and went up to them to see what was going on, it would still be okay.

All Gates needed to do was show his ID and it would have been over with in ten seconds. There is REAL abuse out there. This is simply an issue of a very privileged person trying to prove how “real” he is by crying racism.

Of course they can! If it were my neighborhood in West Philly NOBODY would have called anybody because we don’t look out for each other’s property in the hood – generally speaking – the way people do in upscale neighborhoods like Gates’. He even told the cop, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” If that ain’t some privileged, uppity shit I don’t know what is.


#9 Chris R on 07.29.09 at 1:33 pm

What could possibly be wrong about sitting down for a conversation over a beer?

#10 Maxwell on 08.06.09 at 2:14 am

I appreciated your commentary. Both arguments seem to point at continued assumptions of entitlement.

In refusing to apologize, Crowley makes evident the fundamental arrogance that many police officers rely on to do their jobs. Arrogance coupled with quick judgment that uses skin color, accent, perceived gender, indications of poverty or difference to categorize people who need defense and those who should be punished/policed. Crowley saw his actions as policing and thus fundamentally part of the job — no matter the mistake, he should never have to apologize.

The fascinating part about your second argument is that Obama didn’t say “stupid,” he said that the cambridge police acted “stupidly.”

In this case he suggests that the harassment and arrogance that crowley uses aren’t the problem, but that they applied that process “stupidly,” they picked on the wrong subject.

Entitlement doesn’t always get expressed so clearly.

#11 CarlClark on 09.04.09 at 3:17 am

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