July 28, 2009

Some years ago when one of my friends was still a teenager, he came over to his house after school with a group of his friends -- and only then discovered that he had forgotten his key at home that morning. With the help of a picnic table and a teetering garbage can, he broke in through one of the upstairs windows and let the others in through the front door. A neighbour saw him doing it and called the police to report a group of teens trying to break into a house. The police arrived roughly twenty minutes later, complete with several cruisers and dogs. They knocked at the door, he opened it. When they asked, he matter-of-factly produced identification showing his picture and his address. They also called his parents at work to confirm he was who he said he was. Even after all telephone calls were made, one cruiser remained in the area for another half hour. Finally, all confirmations having been made, the matter was closed.

My friend is white.

In the Gates affair, a woman in the area, not a resident, called to report two men trying to force open a door. When the police arrived, they spoke to her before they went to the house and knocked on the door. When they asked and he was told the reason, Gates became upset. Matters escalated. In the end, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley.

About a day later, President Barack Obama mentioned that the police had acted "stupidly". There was no pulling back then.

Take race and age out of it, and it becomes much more apparent that there were several things that had been done right.

Whenever my friend tells about the "incident", he always also mentions how he can see how his actions might have been taken that way. He was a teenager, and (other) teenagers had been responsible for a disproportional number of the local break-ins. I don't know who was responsible for the break-ins and arsons at my dwellings, but the one time I saw and chased, the would-be thieves were white male teens. The actions of a few have always resonated on the perception of all, be it a burglar or a bus driver who happens to be having a bad day or possibly even simply could not see. It is not fair, but for now that is how it is.

That being said: neither the police nor the caller assumed guilt in either case. The police knocked and asked. The caller repeatedly specifies to the 911 operator that she herself is not sure if there actually is a problem:
I don't know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key. But I did notice they used their shoulder to try to barge in and they got in. I don't know if they had a key or not, 'cause I couldn't see from my angle. ... I just saw it from a distance and this older woman was worried, thinking, 'Someone's been breaking in someone's house. They've been barging in.
In the original 911 call, she did not describe their race. Yet apparent race, like apparent age and apparent height/weight, is a core aspect of physical description: so both the 911 operator and the police did seek a racial description out of her.

When Gates became upset, the situation began to escalate. Above all things, police in every country fear dealing with irate homeowners and domestic disturbances. In a moment of anger or fear, many homeowners have reached for the pistol hidden in a drawer table behind the door for self defence. The police come into every situation, not knowing if this is the one that is going to explode into violence and the real possibility of a police officer being killed on the job. Angry reactions vastly increase the chance. It is partly for this reason that the law is written to allow police to arrest infuriated people as non-cooperative.

There were two things that could have been done differently: but each was reaction rather than action, and neither of those reactions was born in a vacuum.

The long history of blacks being racially profiled -- and worse -- does not just disappear. The knock of police at the door does not mean the same thing to all innocent people. How can it? In most cases the law requires presumption of innocence, but ask people pulled aside for security screenings at the airport just how far presumption of innocence goes in real life. Governor Deval Patrick may have exaggerated slightly when he called the arrest "every black man's nightmare," but only insofar as to substitute "every" for "many" or even "most".

Perhaps the uneven assumptions are changing in some places: but the current public reaction alone ought to tell us that the change is slow and far from universal. Left to itself, a stable societal structure has no reason to change. It is because some blacks became angry and were able to forge that anger into a mass movement that centuries of hierarchical assumptions began to change at all.

The change is not yet complete; possibly because the assumption of meritocracy could itself stand some re-examining. Maybe we can never get far enough away from the preconceptions -- not least of objectivity -- not to argue over which measuring stick is the most accurate. Maybe there is no system possible within human nature and human history that allows equal accomplishments always to be measured equally. Maybe anger is one of the tools that will find one -- and maybe anger at this point is counterproductive. Future generations a few centuries away will see it much more clearly than we are able to, just now.

Obama is not a product of the American racial divide. He may be half-black, but it is second-generation Kenyan black, not since-the-Civil-War American black. Nor, for all his non-rich roots, has he lived in the continental American black's experience of poverty. He grew up in many different places, but none of them were the American inner city or, in some ways worse, the American Archie Bunker-Jeffersons suburb. It is entirely possible that until now, Obama did not realise just how deeply emotions have entrenched both sides of the American racial divide: so that each side jumped to an equally blind conclusion, never mind what the principals of the situation might have to say about it had cooler heads been allowed to prevail in the morning. Quite possibly Obama did not realise until this moment that, although he is an outsider from the many American black communities, he himself is not immune to making racially-based assumptions.

It is certain that he knows now.

Given the facts of the actual encounter, the principals ought to be able to reconcile over a Budweiser at the White House. It will make a pretty photo opportunity if they do. But to address the deeper rift that could be sparked into such reaction so very quickly: that will take much more than a single photo op, a single term, a single generation can do.

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