John McWhorter

And We Have Learned -- What? The Real Lesson After The Beer

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So they had their beer. Teachable Moment. What have we learned?

Something--but not what I sense will get much press in the aftermath.

Directly from The Beer--not much. Gates and Crowley had an “exchange,” although about what we are not to know. And they intend to have more such exchange. Of some sort. All very civil.

Gates has said he’ll be putting together a documentary about the profiling issue. Which means that a year or so from now it will air and get briefish, genuflective reviews from people like Virginia Heffernan and then be forgotten as quickly as CNN’s Black in America specials, or that Black.White thing a few years ago. Remember the one where whites made up as black and blacks made up as whites and fun ensued? What lessons are we now carrying from that “teachable” occasion?

Any lesson we were supposed to learn from Gates-gate directly is, at this point, too thin to register meaningfully as details have come out. Lucia Whalen, who called in to the police, didn’t even mention that the men breaking in were black--and Gates has apologized to her. Crowley turns out to have been teaching non-profiling himself.

The only evidence that remains of what many were hoping we would learn from all of this is that just maybe Crowley would not have arrested a white man who made as much noise as Gates did. But we can’t know that--it’s just a speculation, a beery sort of one. Crowley would never admit it--or more probably, could not be consciously aware of that bias even if he had it.

Officer Justin Barrett tossing off messages calling Gates a “banana-eating jungle monkey”--you couldn’t write this thing better--could be seen as teaching us something: that casual racism is still with us. But didn’t we already know that?

The racism of interest is that which deprives people of their rights. To seek a society where there is no racism whatsoever of the parochial barstool sort is to seek a society where no one passes gas. I apologize for the vulgarity, but I consider the analogy precisely correct. There will be no society of Homo sapiens where occasional eruptions of the Barrett sort are unknown: we are animals.

This means that to parse what happened to Gates as evidence that black men are still regularly hauled off to the clinker just for being black makes for good conversation (and surely, for the next year or so, scores at the podium), but is ultimately just sloppy. It will be the province of people neglecting detail in favor of an emotional score, subscribing to narrative over serious engagement.

I predict that among the set who are both inclined towards detail and yet hungry for that emotional score, standard responses will soon be “I’m just tired of the whole thing” and “The media has overhyped it”--as similar people fell into 15 years ago as evidence that O.J. Simpson was guilty started piling up too high to ignore.

Gates himself seems to be seeking to rise above the easy score here. Post-beer he has offered:

It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand”

This is what one would expect of him. In line with the fashion in commenting on this episode of recounting personal encounters with the man himself, I recall when I met Gates a couple of years after I started writing on race when he chided me in avuncular fashion for my un-PC leanings. As we walked along Mass Ave. in Cambridge, he told me “John, the problem with you is that you always go here on the right, yelling at people on the left, when where you need to be is here in the middle,” deftly indicating said positions with his cane. That’s what he’s doing now.

And in the wake of it, it’s hard to see how something like what happened to him won’t happen again, beer or not. Sensitivity training, of the sort Crowley knows well, can help a bit. But in the heat of moments, Stuff will happen, impulse will take over, and subtle biases may well help determine them. Crowleys will overreact to being dissed--as most of us would. Gateses will overreact out of contextualizing what happens to them as part of something larger--as most black men will understand.

Which leads me to see the main lesson in this as, when we pull the camera back, that the War on Drugs tears at this nation in a grotesque fashion and must be revised thoroughly with all deliberate speed.

The War on Drugs forces attention to certain drugs sold most openly by poor black men, which catches too many innocent black (and Latino) people in its net and fosters a sense of the police as enemies of people of color.

That sense spreads beyond teens and twenty-somethings. Some may have been surprised that a middle-aged man like Gates was as sensitized to profiling as a black 19-year-old. Well, this awareness knows neither age nor gender. Also, even if black women suffer less from direct contact with the police, they are often just as irate about the issue because of it happening to their brothers, fathers, and boyfriends.

It’s not like the old days when white cops routinely preyed on blacks just for kicks, such as the old “Flying Squad” in Chicago who would rough up blacks for minor violations, usually alone to avoid witnesses. The cops are assigned as soldiers in this quest to rid the streets of drug sales, upon which the mess of human encounters too often wreaks havoc.

This leads to unpleasant realities such as this one, as recounted by Heather McDonald at City Journal:

In New York City, for example, blacks commit about 82 percent of all shootings, though they are 24 percent of the population; whites commit less than 1 percent of shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population. Such disparities -- which are typical of violent crime across the country -- mean that when the police are searching for a gun suspect, they will almost never be stopping whites based on a victim identification but will disproportionately be questioning blacks.

The reason these guys are using the guns is not that black men have some bizarre fascination with firearms--note that no one in, say, 1950 associated black men with being gun-crazy. The guns are primarily used to maintain turf amidst wars for drug sales--the drugs rendered enticingly profitable for being classified as contraband.

The upshot of all of this is futility. Watch just one season, for example, of The Wire to get a vivid sense of this (or ideally, all five). On Long Island lately, for example, heroin is deadlier and cheaper than ever despite this “war” of decades’ standing. Nationwide, cops sweeping poor neighborhoods for drugs terrorize black boys and turn them against the only society they will ever know before they can even drive, as I describe here.

I will devote future posts to closer engagement with this issue. For now, however, we must consider: to eliminate the basis for the entire underground economy that ruins so many black lives is surely a proposal worth considering. We must keep also in mind the sentence suspensions offered for information on others caught in the web, which leads to virtually everybody in some black communities under 50 being taught to distrust and withhold information from the police forces assigned to protect them (consult Ethan Brown’s fine Snitch on this).

Otherwise, forget “teachable moments” on things like this. Look, for example, at what Bob Herbert at the Times “learned” from this. Herbert is an informed and reasonable black writer, and yet deeply imprinted with a Racism Forever stance he is ever in search of evidence to shore up (you can be both). To him, Gates was right to be angry because:

“New York City cops make upwards of a half-million stops of private citizens each year, questioning and frequently frisking these men, women, and children. The overwhelming majority of those stopped are black or Latino, and the overwhelming majority are innocent of any wrongdoing.”

“As of mid-2008, there were 4,777 black men imprisoned in America for every 100,000 black men in the population. By the comparison, there were only 727 white men ...”

“While whites use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than blacks, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the ...”

And from this, Herbert predictably has it that--despite two weeks of coverage, editorials, and water-cooler exchange on the Gates episode--“We’re never going to have a serious conversation on race.”

Because for him, as I have stressed in this space all year, the only “conversation” that would qualify as one would have the victim-focused teachings of people like Herbert as the focus and conclusion, not as one element in the mix. That is the conversation Herbert rues that we “never have.”

And as the late Mr. Cronkite had it, that’s the way it is--until we let go of today’s version of that notoriously successful social experiment known as Prohibition.

“Why? Because I’m a black man in America?” I believe that the root of that question by Gates is not simply that white America hates black people, but that the War on Drugs is uniquely situated to force year-round interactions between whites and blacks acting at their worst--to a large extent out of suspicion of one another of potentially acting at their worst.

It won’t do, and it resists any meaningful “teachability.”

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