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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Prof. Gates incident and the "race card" card

What's worse than playing the race card? Playing the race card...card. After Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested last Thursday, I've been reading, against my better judgment, numerous comments that news sites (against their better judgment) allow beneath their articles. Most of these articles contained inconclusive details and demonstrated conflicting accounts between Gates and those of the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. And many, many of the comments complained of Gates "playing the race card". Accusing minorities of playing the race card, it seems, has become code for, "Can we drop this distasteful subject already?" Many of these comments were accompanied by the assertion that now that we have a black president in the White House, it's time to put the whole "race thing" to rest (or as one commenter so tastefully put it, "that ship has sailed"). It seems that, for some Americans, a black president, rather than representing an historic milestone in an ongoing struggle, means that they are off the hook; no more of this messy white guilt. The new face of racism (not that the old ones have gone away) is an impatient rush towards complacency.

It's impossible to know for sure what motivated Sgt. Crowley to arrest Prof. Gates. Regardless, I think we all need a refresher about what exactly "racial profiling" means. It is unfortunate that the phrase itself has a PC ring to it, allowing cynics to dismiss it as bleeding-heart liberal jargon. Whatever you want to call it, there's a very important element to racial profiling that isn't discussed nearly enough: you don't necessarily know when you're doing it. And once you know what it is, dismissing it as something you would "never" engage in isn't enough. Furthermore, no matter what your race, you probably have done it, and you may be just as likely to do it to people of your race as to another.

In order to illustrate, let me share something embarrassing about myself. This is something I realized a couple of years ago, and admitting it hasn't been enough to make it go away. I'm pretty sensitive to the random harassment -- ranging from ogling to unwelcome advances to shouting and whistling -- women are regularly subject to on the street. When I see a male or group of males on the sidewalk or in a car, I immediately brace myself and assess the likelihood that I'm about to be harassed. What I've realized is that this assessment is made up of age, race, and class identifiers. Middle-aged working class males who are white or Hispanic are always high on the alert meter. Yet I've been wrong and been harassed by crotchety old black men, and by young white guys in business-casual garb. I've been right and been harassed by someone whom I was wary of. The times I wasn't harassed don't really prove anything. And what all that probably proves is that my unconscious system is pretty much useless. In my fear of a victimization, I'm passively victimizing other people. I have not yet succeeded in overcoming this way of thinking. Yet I still try, and, more importantly, I try to acknowledge this sort of pattern of thinking and act independently of it.

My point is that avoiding ones own prejudice takes vigilance; it's a decision we have to make over and over again, sometimes in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. It takes admitting to yourself that your instincts can be not only wrong, but can go against your own dearly held value system. There is no point at which we can sit back and say with self-satisfaction, "I'm not racist, and neither is anyone else." Those who feel that all this is tiresome and requires too much effort likely do not live every day on the receiving end of racial discrimination (or sexism, or classism, or homophobia). But we all have empathy at our disposal if only we chose to exercise it.

Maybe our society has become post-racial in the sense that most of us don't want to be racist, but that's really only a fraction of the struggle.