Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama On The Gates Arrest

I am sure everyone is aware that professor Gates was arrested for attempting to break into his own home.  Those of us that are Black are quite used to negative experiences with the police.  Fortunately for Dr. Gates, it did not end in injury or the loss of his life, as has so often been the case.   Last night Obama was asked about the incident and his response was one of the few times in which he spoke openly about the racism that is often aimed at POC.

The Gates arrest came up in the final question of the hourlong news conference in which Mr. Obama largely stuck to familiar talking points about why the country needs to overhaul its health care system right now. Lynn Sweet of The Chicago Sun-Times asked him about the case and what it said about race relations in America.

Mr. Obama paused, then said, "Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here."

Then he made his only joke of the evening, as he speculated about what would happen if he were seen trying to force the door of his own home? "I guess this is my house now," he said, "so it probably wouldn't happen." Then, after a beat, he added, "Let's say my old house in Chicago. Here, I'd get shot."

..."I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in [the events]," Mr. Obama continued. "But I think it's fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and No. 3, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by police disproportionately. That's just a fact."

Obama is not the first prominent Black man to speak about police harassment of people of color he is simply the first to do so from the oval office.   Malcolm X once asked what Whites call a Black man with a PhD and the answer was nigger.  The arrest of Dr.Gates is yet another example of the fact that no matter your achievements, Whiteness is invested with so much power, that you are easily reducible.  Dr.Gates may have economic privilege due to his class position but in the end when people see him outside of an academic setting, what they see is a Black Man and all of the social constructs that have come to be associated with this identity,

The officer who arrested Dr.Gates has refused to apologize for his behaviour.  In fact the two descriptions of the event could not be further apart.  As Obama said in his statement, the one fact that we know  is that White police officers have a long history of attacking bodies of color.  There will be those that will be quick to point out that not all White people are racist, however enough are to seriously impact the life of the average Back American.  It is far more likely that Dr.Gates was targeted because of the color of skin.

Due to the fact that Dr.Gates is a well respected member of the Black intelligentsia, his arrest made the headlines of the major networks but how many  Americans of color are daily subject to the same sort of treatment without the charges being dropped, or a discussion of the ways in which their treatment was influenced by racism?  Dr.Gates is embarrassed by the incident, however his class privilege meant that he was able to hire a lawyer and his pseudo celebrity status meant that the situation was not ignored as just another Black man playing the race card. How many people of color actually exist with that kind of privilege?

The every day slights that bodies of color undergo due to systemic racism are often ignored.  It is only when a Black celebrity is attacked that people deem it worthy to discuss whether or not a particular event was racially motivated.  The bottom line is that Black means targeted, whether you have a PhD or are working for minimum wage at Walmart.  Had Obama not been of African American descent, the question of his thoughts on Dr.Gates arrest would not even have been questioned.  Racism is understood as the problem of Blackness though Whiteness perpetuates it on every social level.  

We are expected to find a way to negotiate the attacks aimed at  us by Whiteness whereas; Whiteness bears little to no responsibility for its actions.  The impunity with  which systemic Whiteness operates is normalized in order to portray Blackness as naturally deviant.   Those of us that speak out against racism are too sensitive, determined to see racial issues where none exist, or are purposefully agitating an otherwise peaceful situation for the sake of personal attention.  The very fact that we are able to question is an affront because Whiteness not only wants to manifest its power, it attempts to do so with the complicity of those it seeks to marginalize.

What happened to Dr.Gates was definitely wrong however; I feel a full discussion will not occur, until we realize that we are only aware of what happened because it occurred with an affluent Black male, versus one who is poverty stricken.  Race has many intersections and to have a proper discussion, we need to realize that though we are often subject to similar situations, how they are dealt with is mitigated by things like class or gender privilege.  In one body many isms and privileges regularly collide to form our social understanding of the individual.  We cannot talk about racism without understanding that no single Black individual normalizes the experiences of African Americans.