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.
I 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.”
Yet, 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”?
Part 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.”)
Of 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.