Wednesday, July 29, 2009

That Beer

This will sound like a stretch to you, a little conspiratorial, and violative of the law of parsimony/Occam's Razor, but please stay with it.

The controversy surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Officer James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department emanated from one issue: the allegation of racial bias. To refresh the memory, President Obama, first from July 22, 2009, finding nothing unacceptable in police behavior but racial predudice:

Now, I've -- I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that....

And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That's just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and oftentime for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be.

From Barack Obama on July 24, 2009, unaware that intemperate behavior of a police officer cannot be laid solely at the feet of racial misunderstanding:

What I’d like to do then I make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts — but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you’ve got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what’s called a “teachable moment,” where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. Lord knows we need it right now — because over the last two days as we’ve discussed this issue, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care. (Laughter.)

Race may, or may not, have been a factor in Sgt. Crowley's handling of the situation- or in Professor Gates' reaction to the officer's actions at Gates' home. But surely there is a racial angle to the entire affair.

That suspicion of racism lies in the reality of racial stereotyping, the fiction that all blacks are criminals and all criminals are black. (Racial profiling, as those who understand the term, was not involved in the incident, unless one attributes it to Lucia Whalen, which evidence shows would be inaccurate.)

The victims of ethnic stereotyping, however, are not only black. They are (among others) Hispanic, Asian, Polish-American, Jewish- and Irish American. And we all know what that unfair generalization is: drunks. In addition, they are cheap drunks- beer, if you will. And likely to be priests (or nuns) or cops.

Barack Obama notes "indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately.... is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society." Stopped disproportionately because, presumably, of the ethnic stereotype of black people- criminals, always up to no good.

And then Barack Obama invites Sgt. James Crowley, a Boston-area policeman (it doesn't get any more stereotypical than that, unless he were a cop in Boston proper) to the White House for.... a beer! Why, you might ask, would President Obama consciously play to the stereotype of the Irish-American, other than figuring what's good for the goose is good for the gander?

First, Barack Obama does nothing that's not conscious. Bright, thoughtful, and deliberate- that's a stereotype of Obama, but one almost everyone would accept as valid. He does virtually nothing by accident, with no room for serendipity.

Second, the birther movement. Oh, of course, few people believe there is any reasonable chance that Barack Obama was born outside of the United States. But some do. And this perception feeds into, and is in part a result of, the sense that Barack Hussein Obama is different than you or me. Not a guy from Mayberry, nor anyone Wally and the Beaver would have recognized. And this strange person will be photographed Thursday night.... drinking a beer! With a white police officer (and another fellow)! Even better- drinking a Bud! Budweiser, a symbol of the everyday, down to earth American fellow (never mind that Anheuser-Busch has been sold to a Belgian company).

After the photo op at the White House, the birthers could come up with (no, really they couldn't, but just suppose) a certified, long-form birth certificate verifying that Barack H. Obama was born in Kenya. No matter. Barack Obama is an American, maybe even a good-ole boy- you'll see it yourself Thursday night.

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