by Unknown | 7/31/2009 12:55:00 PM
I was going to leave Lucia Whalen alone after her tearful press conference, but Aaron Bady's post has convinced me that there are people out there who still don't get it. So, let's try again.

Bady claims that Whalen, the woman who called police on Henry Louis Gates for attempting to break into his own house, is "pretty much the only person involved in the Gates imbroglio who didn't over-react, the only person whose actions don't seem to reflect a sense of personal grievance or entitlement. ... There seems to be little or no room in the narrative for a person who simply tried to do the right thing in a difficult situation, with full cognizance and awareness of the difficulties of that situation. No good deed goes unpunished." Obviously, Bady buys Whalen's defense that because she never told the arresting officer that Gates was black, she can't be a racist. In doing so, he falls prey to the most simplistic of stereotypes regarding racism, and he fails to recognize the full import of the racism that likely did motivate Whalen's phone call to police, despite all her denials.

When people think of the term "racist," they think of folks like Bull Connor and George Wallace and Theodore Bilbo -- big swaggering brutes who display their hatred of black people like a badge of honor. Because people rightly observe that the Connors and Wallaces of old have virtually disappeared from the public scene, and that behavior such as theirs is now unacceptable, they assume that racism no longer exists in any important fashion. So really, the image of Bull Connor as the archetypal racist is one of the most nefarious cultural ideas active today. It blinds people to what's right in front of their eyes, because they're so focused on what's NOT there.

No one is claiming that Lucia Whalen is a Bull Connor-style racist. But then, very few people of any importance are these days. Bull Connor is to modern racism as ENIAC is to modern computers. Sure, there are still some of the old dinosaurs still around today, and sure, they occasionally wield some power, but really they're museum pieces, pariahs, and jokes.

The new racism -- again like new computers -- is sleek and shiny and unobtrusive. It's a velvet-cloaked, dagger-in-the-night kind of racism -- a kind made extra dangerous by the fact that few of us even recognize we have it. It manifests itself not in white hoods and burning crosses, but in the little flicker of revulsion white Americans feel when a black man walks by us on the street; the flicker of doubt we feel when a black woman demonstrates superlative achievement in college or on the job; the flicker of relief we feel when our new co-workers or neighbors turn out to be white rather than black; the flicker of discomfort we feel when we come into contact with African-Americans in our neighborhoods or anywhere else.

How can a mere flicker create a societal malaise? When we act on it -- something that we do with frightening regularity. The numbers on this do not lie. The following statistics are taken from pages x-xi of How Race Survived U.S. History (2008) by David Roediger, who is one of America's greatest historians of race. Roediger in turn got them from various government sources. Keep in mind when you read these that there are no real, tangible reasons for African-Americans to have a dfferent standard of living from whites nearly half a century after the end of Jim Crow.

  • Black males born in 1991 have a 29% chance of imprisonment. White males have less than 1/7 of that.

  • In 2004, the black poverty rate was nearly three times the white poverty rate. Nearly a third of black children lived in poverty, versus a tenth of white children.

  • In 2008, two-thirds of African-American urban students were in schools where less than 10 percent of the students were white.

  • In 1998, the average net worth of black and Hispanic families was 17.28% that of white families

  • In 2008, black unemployment was at 25% -- the peak level of American unemployment during the Great Depression. White unemployment in 2008 was less than 10% (it's higher now).

This is the very real and serious problem that Gates' arrest points up: the fact that our subconscious and unconscious racism has tangible and devastating effects on the African-American population. But racism today is a moving target, both because so few people are aware they possess it and because we are so resistant to being labeled racists. No one wants to be Bull Connor, and in the process we run headlong to the opposite extreme without acknowledging the very real damage our prejudices and racist impulses cause.

Of course Lucia Whalen isn't a racist -- and neither are most other people. She's not special or evil or, really, different from anyone else. Instead, she's a representative of a white American culture that is sown through with racism. The idea that she had to explicitly mention Gates' race or consciously think about it in order to be acting from racist motives is ludicrous on its face. Would she have called the cops if Gates and his driver had been white? I don't know. Would she have been less likely to do so? I guarantee it. That right there is the problem -- a problem not unique to Lucia Whalen, but common to virtually all non-black Americans. It's not a problem that's easily solved, nor should we assume that a solution can be achieved with any real speed. But the frustrating thing is when people like Lucia Whalen and Aaron Bady spend more time denying that they're Bull Connor than searching their souls to find out what they really are.




Blogger Unknown on 7/31/2009 7:22 PM:

I have posted a response at my blog, since it also didn't fit into comment boxes (I'm Aaron, obviously)


Blogger Unknown on 7/31/2009 8:13 PM:

Folks, I'm going to continue the discussion over at Aaron's place. Comments are still welcome here, and I'll respond to them here.


Blogger Unknown on 7/31/2009 8:58 PM:

Actually, I am going to repost this comment of mine here, because it's longer than my original post!

Thanks very kindly for your response. I want to make clear, before I begin, that I greatly appreciate your comments. The harsh words you read in the following paragraphs are in no way aimed at you; rather, they stem from the zeal of the recent convert. It's only been in the past couple of years that I've come to an awareness of the pernicious nature of racism in my own life and in the lives of others. So, make of this what you will.

I should say first of all that I haven't had as much time to really sink my teeth into this issue as I would have liked. I've already been caught out twice on the facts in my last post on the subject, and while I've done a bit more reading now, it sounds like you've done more than I have. So I really don't think you need to apologize on the score of tossing off a post without adequate background reading -- since that's exactly what I've been doing on this issue. And isn't that what blogs are for, anyway? If we'd wanted to write well-researched articles on the Gates arrest, we could have shopped them as op-eds instead.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. I am trying very hard to be sensitive to the feminist issues at work here, and I absolutely agree with your larger point that women frequently get left out in the perceived solutions to racial divides (just look at the Hillary Clinton campaign if you want to see evidence of that at work). But in this case I'm finding it difficult to sympathize with Whalen because, contrary to your original post, I think she's the only individual in the whole affair who DIDN'T act appropriately. Gates acted as many people would act when a police officer barged into their house, and his comments on the role of race in the fear he felt were spot-on. Crowley, as I argued in my first post on the subject, was doing his job by responding to a call for assistance, and while I think his arresting Gates was stupid, I can also understand his frustration at being called a racist for doing his job. The only thing Obama did wrong was to walk back his initial comments. So I find that Obama was right to invite Gates and Crowley, and to exclude Whalen, on the merits alone -- which makes it difficult for me to buy your gendered argument.

Where I think we really disagree is your support for her her argument that her not mentioning Gates' race is evidence that she wasn't motivated by racism. In this day and age, even Bull Connor himself might think twice before talking overtly about race. How many racist employers today would tell a black man he wasn't being hired because he was black? How many real racist cops (which I don't think Crowley is) would actually tell their victims they were being profiled because of their race? To me this argument is ridiculous on its face. It's yet another instance of Whalen trying to disprove what no one has accused her of: that she is Bull Connor.

(comment continues)


Blogger Unknown on 7/31/2009 8:58 PM:

The meat of your response, for me, rests in your critique that I have no standard of appropriate behavior, and that I don't believe there's a way for a white (or non-black, as Whalen is Puerto Rican) American to call the police on a black man without being racist. That's a valid criticism, and it gets at a bedrock issue that I should have addressed directly in my post. I don't believe a white American can call the police on a black American without being racist, because I don't believe a white American can have any interaction with a black American without being racist. There are exceptions, of course; if you grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood and went to a mixed-race school and had no idea that racism existed until you went off to college, then maybe you aren't racist. Maybe if you were educated primarily in other countries then you're not racist. But by and large, white people who grew up, as I did, being afraid of or contemptuous of black people, or viewing them as somehow strange and different -- are racist.

So what do we do about our racism? I think the idea that we can take steps to mitigate it is facile and foolish. Lucia Whalen and I are racists. We were raised as racists and we'll always be racists, just like English will always be my first language (I don't know what Whalen's first language is). What we can do is two things. Most importantly, we can attempt to change our society so that more people can grow up not being racists. This means integrated housing (probably the single most important solution, if Tom Sugrue is to be believed), school busing, some form of affirmative action, etc. The second thing we can do is never, ever, deny our inherent racism; that's an insult to the people we oppress and it sets back our national progress on race every time we do it. That's what upsets me so much about Whalen's argument -- her insistence that she's not a racist, no way, nohow. Of course she's a racist. We're all racists.

To bring this back to Gates, I think part of the problem is that Gates doesn't want to have a discussion about how virtually all white Americans are racist. Instead, he wants us to talk about how the police are racist. Well, sure the police are racist -- because they're white Americans, and because they are paid by white Americans. Saying the police are the problem is like saying the Empire would be all right if we could only get rid of those storm troopers. No one likes the storm troopers, but they'd leave us alone if their evil overlords weren't telling them what to do. What we need to understand in this country is that we, the white people of America, are the evil overlords; that it is in our birth and in our blood, and that trying to deny it only makes us look like fools.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 7/31/2009 10:19 PM:

I don't believe a white American can call the police on a black American without being racist, because I don't believe a white American can have any interaction with a black American without being racist.

He who defines the terms wins the argument.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 7/31/2009 10:29 PM:

Also, Whalen isn't "Puerto Rican": she's a second-generation Portuguese American.


Anonymous human on 7/31/2009 11:49 PM:

I think I kind of see what you're trying to do here, Jeremy, but I'm also a bit confused, because it sounds like you're saying Whalen's actions - which you state are racist - were somehow predetermined. Or you're saying that there is no possible way she could have NOT been racist in the situation. (What about going on about her day and not calling the cops? Would that have been racist?)

What confuses me in particular is that you don't seem to be saying anything like this about either Gates or Crowley. Please note I don't think Gates is much to blame in any case; he lost his temper, understandably. But Crowley got pissed and arrested the man when he knew darn well he hadn't committed any crime.

So I guess I'm puzzled as to why you are focusing on Whalen as being the biggest racist -- and why you also seem to be saying that there's nothing any of us white people can do to, well, not be as racist. For one, I think Crowley could have de-escalated the situation like he should have and not arrested Gates. That would have been less racist.

It's funny I guess; it seems like you're upset at people for letting Whalen off too easy, and I think you're letting Crowley off way too easy.

But this XKCD cartoon did crack me the hell up:


Anonymous human on 7/31/2009 11:54 PM:

Oh, and I meant to say also that I appreciated Obama's "walking back" of his comments as much as I appreciated the initial comments. I heard him to be saying, basically, "Look, I stand by what I said, but I'm sorry that my comments caused a whole lot of people to freak out at you guys. That's not what I was going for." It was absolutely the right thing to do, I think.

I was talking about this earlier today, actually, with someone who observed that Obama sees himself as a racial peacemaker. There are a lot of people out there who would say he's not an ideal one, that he's doing it wrong, I guess. But when I sit and think about what an ideal racial peacemaker WOULD look like... I got nothing. At least, nothing better than what he's already doing.


Blogger Unknown on 8/01/2009 1:20 AM:

Ahistoricality, just because you think my comments are extreme does NOT mean they are wrong. I know my views are extreme. I also think they line up with the evidence as presented by authors such as Roediger and Sugrue. I would challenge you to explain why I am wrong. (I acknowledge my misprint regarding Whalen's ethnic origin.)

I would also challenge you to explain how this is a reductio ad absurdum, as you claim elsewhere. I think I make very clear that it IS possible for a limited number of white Americans to be free of racism toward African-Americans. Indeed, that is a cornerstone of my argument, since my solution involves growing that limited number in future generations. I will also note that my reduction, such as it is, is the entire point. It's why Whalen's insistence that she's not a racist rings so hollow for me. Of course she's a racist. Any one of us -- with a minuscule (though important) number of exceptions -- would have done the same thing. And that is the problem. Does she think she is better than the rest of us white people, that she is somehow free of racism? Or does she deny, more likely, the fact that we all are racists?

To answer Human's point about the policeman, yes, he was motivated by racism. However, unlike Whalen, he was not acting as a free agent. He was doing his job, as he was asked to do by a white American who employs him. In my previous post I used the example of a friend of mine who had a similar experience -- with a black policeman. The policeman doesn't have the ability not to investigate when he is called to do so, so it really doesn't matter whether he's a racist or not. Whalen, on the other hand, had a choice.

Finally, I don't believe in the idea of racial peacemaking. Perhaps if we were on the verge of a race war, as the Rwandans were, then it might make sense to make peace between the races. In America, on the other hand, we have too much peace about this issue. Peace keeps us from recognizing the problem and it keeps us from creating and implementing a solution.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/01/2009 6:59 AM:

"I don't believe there's a way for a white (or non-black, as Whalen is Puerto Rican) American to call the police on a black man without being racist."

I'm sorry, but this makes no sense whatsoever. Essentially your argument is that all whites are racist, regardless, and that anytime a white person uses an instrument of authority against an African-American, regardless of the situation, the cause is racism.

That's madness, and carries with is the implication that human can never improve their condition, that our actions are predestined, and that there is little hope of fixing the problem of racism, only temporarily controlling it.


Blogger Unknown on 8/01/2009 7:40 AM:

Andrew, I don't think my argument is "madness" at all, nor do I think it implies what you say.

First of all, I certainly think we can attempt to control our actions with regard to racism, on an individual level. On a societal level, that may not be possible. We may not be able to raise black socioeconomic indicators by controlling our actions, because the number of people willing to go to the trouble to control their actions may be too small. Indeed, I think this is the case.

But beyond that, I think there is every hope of controlling the problem of racism. It simply requires a more radical solution than most Americans are willing to countenance. I do believe it is too late for us, but it is not too late for our children and grandchildren. Our challenge is to build a society where they can grow up free of racism. That's how to solve the problem: by giving future generations the tools they need to fix a problem which we cannot fix.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/01/2009 11:16 AM:

You said that you don't think your argument implies what I say, but you then restated the same thing: all whites are racist, and we can only hope to control the racism.


Blogger elle on 8/01/2009 1:54 PM:

I'm really intrigued by this conversation--the things and ideas that folks are grappling with.

AndrewMc, I try to stay away from statements like "all whites are racist" because once you go there, conversation is pretty near impossible to have. I'd say, to quote Lipsitz, that all whites have a "possessive investment" in whiteness, that you don't have to do anything to reap the benefits of that.

But, to call out or challenge or question those benefits takes action, and maybe that's where Jeremy is going with the observation that maybe not many people are willing to do that? It's like Beverly Tatum says, they're not being actively racist, but passively so?

This is on my first read-through; I might totally be wrong about Jeremy or need to re-read the whole exchange (which I will do).


Blogger Unknown on 8/01/2009 2:40 PM:

Andrew, to rephrase my point in your language: virtually all whites are racist, and we can end the racism for future generations only by taking drastic action now.


Blogger Bob In Pacifica on 8/01/2009 5:25 PM:

I'm not sure, on looking at the transcripts, that anyone can accuse Whalen of being racist in this matter in other than the broadest of generalities. If the mere recognition of race constitutes racism Whalen did not even achieve that level of "racism". Even making the call was done at the urging of another woman who didn't have a cell phone. The only thing I find wrong with Whalen's actions is allowing Wendy Murphy to insinuate herself into this case.

It was Crowley who rewrote the actual events in order to justify his actions, to include the invention of talking with Whalen and the "two black men with backpacks" meme.

As an aside, I worked as a race relations instructor in the army in the early seventies, and as a union rep in San Francisco for a couple of decades. Race and racism often plays a part in daily life, and being part of one oppressed minority does not exempt you from viewing another oppressed group with contempt. It's the sorry "us v. them" part of human nature that is exploited by the powers that be.

I remember one time when I was talking to a coworker about someone else in another work location and was asked to give some identification of him. And I couldn't remember what race he was. I found that exhilarating. I can't say it ever happened again and I did notice he was a he and not a she. But being utterly blind as to race is a remarkable experience that very few of us have after early childhood.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/01/2009 8:50 PM:

I'm not sure, on looking at the transcripts, that anyone can accuse Whalen of being racist in this matter in other than the broadest of generalities.

Bob, that's precisely what Jeremy is doing.

Jeremy, as Bob points out, your limitation of racism to "whites" displays a flattening of discourse so extreme as to be almost silly. Ethnicity and ethnic prejudice are global issues; one might even call them human. Social engineering, especially "drastic action" is much more likely (as in the case of the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics) to produce nasty backlashes than any positive change.


Blogger Unknown on 8/01/2009 11:43 PM:

Racism is not limited to whites. In the United States, racism with drastically negative large-scale socioeconomic consequences is limited to whites.


Blogger Unknown on 8/02/2009 12:06 PM:

I've posted a response to your response to my response to your response (is that right?) over at my blog. I think my position is different from yours mainly in terms of framing: I don't like the fatalism of "it is too late for us"; people still suffer from the effects of today's racism, and thinking about the ultimate horizon of a race-less society doesn't prevent us from also thinking about mitigating the effects of present day racism. These might be two different things, but saying we should do both is not the same thing as your implication that doing the latter prevents us from doing the former.

Also, to respond to a point made here, I share Ahistoricality's objection to the "white people have a monopoly on racism" line, but would put it this way: non-white people might have a monopoly on suffering from anti-black racism, but they get to do so at the hands of non-white people as well. White people may mostly be the driving force of that, but that doesn't mean that white racism is experienced all that differently from any other form. And it's the receiving end, not the racist, whose perspective is most important here.


Anonymous Former Archivist on 8/02/2009 7:20 PM:

I usually like your approach to things but your categorical “I guarantee it” brought me up short. You’ve dehumanized this woman to the point of reducing her to a symbol for centuries of abuse and ill treatment of African Americans. Whoa. Thumbs up on sensitivity to racial issues, thumbs down on passing judgment so quickly on people about whose human side you know little. Neither you nor anyone else who hears of a woman calling in a police report can guarantee anything.

You could say, “From what I’ve learned about the way these things often play out, she might not.” But you cannot guarantee it. To say that you can guarantee it is to reduce one of your fellow Americans to a stereotype you never would accept if applied to you by the right. (Such as people on the right dismissing with a sense of moral superiority “the elites” who aren’t “real Americans” because they don’t know what it is like to “do real, honest work.”) The underlying sense of moral superiority to others comes across as the same.

I don’t think you help President Obama or Professor Gates by doing that. If you read Thomas Frank’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, you know that he thinks, with some apparent sense of regret, that the right won this round in the culture war. (I’m not sure it did.) Franks’s July 29 commentary is called “The Gates of Political Distraction: How Obama’s Mistake Was Falling for A Culture War Diversion.” We need these conversations. But the vehemence with which you criticize this woman plays right into the hands of conservatives who want to paint academics as elitists who look down their noses at “real people.”

Of course the racial issue deserves exploration. So too do town and gown issues. And police culture (good and less than good). But there are other way to look at it, as well. I’m white. I’ve never had to endure “driving while black” or other forms of profiling. (Bob Herbert put it well when he said you can get arrested for being “angry while black.”) I live in a house in a neighborhood where I know the neighbors around me. If I was a stranger to my neighbors, and someone saw me struggle with the door in what looked like an attempted break in, I would want them to call the police. Because the next time someone was observed acting suspiciously at my door, it just might be someone with bad intent who did not live there. Others' mileage may vary, that's just me.

Complex factors play into how someone will roll. A few years ago, I was mugged in my neighborhood by a young black male who had come from out of state to look for targets. (He also attacked another resident a few blocks away the previous day.) I was lucky, I got my wallet back. (After being knocked to the ground, I got up and ran after the mugger, yelling “stop, thief.” He threw my wallet at a passerby at the end of the block and fled in a car. A year or two later, I was walking down the street in a downtown area after visiting a well-known bookstore. As I started to cross the street, a random young black man passing me deliberately spit at me, for no reason at all.

Do I cross the street or shy away when I pass black men? No. It doesn’t have to work that way. I’ve lived and worked in a racially diverse area all my life. That teaches you not to jump to conclusions. I walk by black men of all ages the same way I do everyone else. As a female, I’m actually probably more likely to steel myself as I pass construction sites, simply because I carry with me the memories of hearing lewd comments leveled at me by construction workers (mostly white) in the past. We all accumulate baggage. People very greatly in their level of self awareness and their moral calculations (yes, even non-academics). We just don’t know enough about the caller in the Gates case to hand down categorical judgments.


Anonymous concerned_citizen on 1/02/2010 6:39 PM:

I know I'm way late to this... But I've got to say this is an absolutely ridiculous post you've made Jeremy. 2 points:

1) You're implying that Lucia Whalen lied when she said she didn't recognize the races of the men. Why would she do that? What purpose would it serve? How could she possibly have known that this would become a public incident? If she was racist, why not actually mention the race involved? And if she didn't know their races, how can her actions be driven by racism?

2) You have not demonstrated any action that Lucia Whalen took that is being caused by any racism she might be feeling... She didn't know their races yet you say her actions were somehow being driven by racism. What exactly is a non-racist action in this case? To ignore potential burglars? Is her racism in any way related to her actions in this situation, or simply a result of being white?

What actions of hers were driven by racism and how? And how would a non-racist behave?

You've reduced racism to such a subtlety that it is ridiculous. In a previous post someone mentioned that according to your post, when a white person uses any type of authority on a black person, he's automatically racist.... but it's even worse than that... the white person need not even know the person they're calling authority on is black... if it turns out that they're black afterwards, that also makes them racist! This is absurdity/madness!