Obama’s lost opportunity

2009-08-21 16:18

TAXI drivers provide a perverse service to the racial conversation when they

refuse to pick up black people. Clearly it would be better if they stopped so

that we wouldn’t be left hailing the night air like fools or relying on white

friends to sneak one past the censor like supplicants.

But if anyone is going to experience racial hardship let it be the cab

riders. For if you can afford to take a cab then it is probably not a bad thing

to be reminded that racism brooks no exceptions – up to and including the

ability to pay.

Racism discriminates against people on the grounds of race – just like it

says on the packet. It can be as arbitrary in its choice of victim as it is

systemic in its execution. And while it never works alone but rather in cahoots

with class, gender and a host of other rogue characters, it has political

licence to operate independently.

It’s a basic lesson at relatively low cost. And yet the arrest of Harvard

professor Henry Louis Gates Jr at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests

we are doomed to keep repeating the lesson. Barack Obama was right when he

referred to the arrest as a “teachable moment” but given the brouhaha that has

followed it seems that even a moment involving the nation’s most prominent black

intellectual teaches us nothing.

This lesson should come in two parts. First, all such tales attempt to stage

racism as a crude morality play, with individuals as absolute victims and

absolute villains rather than as a system of oppression that works primarily

through institutions. The victim must have no priors and no drugs. And unless

the per petrator is photographed with a billy club in hand and uses racial slurs

that are recorded on tape, we are supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt


For an individual, that is fair. For a system it is farcical. While it may be

intriguing to speculate about what two people may or may not have been thinking,

feeling and intending at any given moment the proof of racism is in the odds.

Black people in the US fall foul of not just the law of the land but the law of

probabilities as well. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested,

convicted and executed.

Second, the fact that racism might affect a Harvard professor is amazing only

if one buys into the idea that black people who have reached a certain status

should be exempt from racism. If you believe that then the problem with Gates’

arrest is not racism. It’s that he was treated like a regular black person. The

issue moves from “if it happened to him it really can happen to anybody” to “it

shouldn’t have happened to him because he is a somebody”.

Which brings us back to Obama, who first said the Cambridge police acted

“stupidly” only to then “recalibrate” his remarks before inviting the arresting

officer, James Crowley, and Gates to the White House for beers and

reconciliation. This was primarily remarkable because for reasons both pragmatic

and strategic Obama’s interventions in matters of race are so very rare.

So it is curious that he would use the considerable influence he has in this

area to defend a tenured Harvard professor who was detained for a few hours.

Indeed, the only other public pronouncement Obama has made about race since his

election was delivered at the National Association for the Advancement of

Coloured People conference just a week before Gates’ arrest.

“We’ve got to say to our children, ‘Yes, if you’re African-American the odds

of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher’,” Obama said.

“Yes, if you live in a poor neighbourhood you will face challenges that

somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to

get bad grades. That’s not a reason to cut class. No one has written your

destiny for you. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses.

No excuses.”

There are a huge number of explanations for black underachievement in this

country, none of which are merely “excuses”. But Gates’ experience also gave the

lie to Obama’s exhortations.

Gates got good grades, probably never cut school and does not live amid crime

and gangs. If he had, the incident might have ended up in anything from a police

record to his death while never even making the local paper. Not that Gates

didn’t have a legitimate grievance. But he probably could have handled the

matter without the help of the commander-in-chief.

The same cannot be said for, say, Troy Davis, who sits on death row in

Georgia for the murder of a police office who was off duty , which he insists he

did not commit. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified Davis have recanted

or contradicted their original testimony, which they claim was made under police

coercion. One of the remaining two is also a suspect in the crime.

Desmond Tutu, the pope, and Jimmy Carter have called for a new trial or

evidentiary hearing. This is a matter where Obama’s involvement could tip the

balance between life and death.

After their drink, Gates will go back to Harvard, Crowley will return to the

force, Obama will stay in the White House. Nothing about law or race – not even

the national conversation – will have changed. And Troy Davis will remain on

death row. For now the only beer he can expect will be with his last meal. And

he will be drinking alone.

– The Nation

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