A Philosopher's Blog

Beer & Race

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2009

While Obama, Gates and Crowley were sitting down to some foreign owned beers, the Gates incident continued to grow.

The latest additions to the incident are the email sent by Officer Justin Barrett in which he refers to Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey”, and the fact that Sergeant Leon Lashley has been called an Uncle Tom for defending Crowley.

Barrett is, as to be expected, claiming that he is not a racist and that he is sorry for sending the email. As is also to be expected, he has been placed on leave and might be fired.

Obviously, his monkey remark can be seen as racist because of the long history of blacks being compared to monkeys in racial slurs. If Barrett had instead used a phrase such as “latte sipping, book reading, tricycle riding, ivory tower dwelling liberal”, then there would have been no incident or media coverage, since race was not involved. Making slurs like that are not considered nice, but are seen as quite tolerable, even though they might be motivated by as much hate as a racist comment. Somehow, the racial aspect makes a remark far, far worse.

While his remark seems racist, perhaps he is not a racist. If using a phrase that seems racist makes a person a racist, then I suspect everyone would be racist. This, of course, makes the term almost meaningless. It would be like saying that anyone who has every lied is a liar. While technically true, it certainly takes the force out of calling someone a liar. After all, when someone is accused of being a liar, we mean something more than that they lie at a “normal” level. We mean that they are a serious liar. Clearly, the officer showed bad judgment in using that phrase in an email.

To address the question of whether he is a racist or not, his past behavior would need to be examined. Going back to the liar analogy, while a person who has lied could be called a liar, we normally accuse people of being liars when that something they are inclined to do beyond what is normal. While it would be nice if people did not lie and if people never said racial slurs, that expectation is unrealistic.

It might be the case that the officer was angry and simply used a derogatory phrase that popped into his head. While this might be seen as expressing a deep seated racism, it might also simply reflect the fact that when people are angry, they tend to think poorly and use phrases that are rather insulting. For example, if a couple are having a fight, the man might call his girlfriend a bitch or the “c word.” This does not mean that he is a misogynist. Rather, when people are angry they tend to reach for the meanest words they have on hand. So, before the officer is cast as a racist, more investigation is needed.

As far as the Uncle Tom charge, the sergeant did what was right: he spoke out in defense of  colleague who had done nothing wrong. To insist that the sergeant must stick with Gates because they are both black and Crowley is white would certainly seem to be a rather biased view. This charge is the same as attacking a white cop simply because he stands up for a black officer who has been involved in an incident involving a white person. People should do what is right and what is right cannot be determined by looking at the color of the folks involved.

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23 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on July 31, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Barrett needs to be canned. He’s a dumbass.

    • biomass2 said, on July 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm

      Michael writes: “This charge is the same as attacking a white cop simply because he stands up for a black officer who has been involved in an incident involving a white person.”

      Magus, I’m just curious and not schooled in police terminology. I have a question. I don’t think it’s happened, nor is it likely to, but what phrase would be used if a white cop would defend a (hypothetically innocent) Gates?

      • magus71 said, on August 1, 2009 at 8:51 am

        biomass,

        I’m not sure there’s any police terminology for it, except perhaps, professionalism. If police officers want to be taken seriously they must fight their tribal instincts. This is not always easy, as police officers are frequently asked to deal with people who outright hate cops and who use cops as scapegoats for their problems. “I was drunk and driving, but it’s the cop who actually put me in jail so I don’t like cops.”

        I admit there is a tendency for police to defend other police, at least until the evidence is clear.

        The issue with Gates is that it was NOT a racial issue; it was an issue as to if a law was actually being broken by Gates. As Dr. L pointed out, Gates was treated as a white man would have been if he acted the same way, that I’m pretty sure of. And Gates must ask himself: Would a poor black man with no social standing have had the charges against him dropped? I say no. In fact, I could argue that BECAUSE Gates is black and of high standing, he got off easier than most. The high profile arrest for a low cost crime got him off.

        There were many times at my department where there were arguments or discussions as to the legality or ethics of making a certain arrest. It was healthy to have dissent.

  2. biomass2 said, on July 31, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    “Somehow, the racial aspect makes a remark far, far worse.”

    Somehow? I’ve written at length in comments to your previous articles why for various reasons racial slurs, particularly slurs against blacks by whites in America are vile and dangerous.

    I don’t think it’s at all fair to characterize Barrett’s remark as “using a phrase that *seems* racist”. Seriously? Seems?

    Nor is it reasonable to claim, “It might be the case that the officer was angry and simply used a derogatory phrase that popped into his head.” Is it actually likely the phrase “banana-eating jungle monkey” just ‘slipped’ out of his little brain–like it supposedly “popped” into it?—and onto the keyboard as easily as a word might slide, trippingly off the tongue? The mind/tongue connection is much more immediate, is it not? Does one not have the opportunity to consider words before typing them into one’s computer?

    However, it must be said that, if it is indeed that easy for such a particularly disgusting racial slur to get into an email, it surely demonstrates something about the depth of the anti-black attitudes to be found in some Americans (and please note here, magus, that I’m not narrowing my criticism to policemen or white protestants). Whoever they are, I don’t think we can just “put [those types of people] behind us”.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2009 at 8:17 am

      I think it is easy for any sort of slur or insult to get into emails, blog comments and so on. While the comments here have been amazingly civil overall, I have seen all sorts of venomous comments full of hate. People throw out insults left and right, use obscene terms needlessly and so on. There are plenty of jerks out there and they seem to use whatever they feel (to say they think and reflect might be assuming to much) will cause the most annoyance.

      My point is that racism should be seen in the general context of hatred and churlishness. People hate for a variety of reasons, but hate is hate. While it does make sense to deal with specific types of hate, it is unjustified hatred that needs to be combated.

      • biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 10:25 am

        “but hate is hate”

        But you agree that some types of hatred go deeper than others? Hatred of whites toward blacks, and likely the resulting hatred-mixed-with-fear of blacks toward whites, hatred of straights for gays, hatred of one religious sect for another?

        In the case of black-on-white racism ,the little “jerks” who seem pitiful and merely ‘annoying’ are, it seems to me, food for a much larger animal. Perhaps cutting off the food supply will weaken and eventually destroy the beast?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

          Hatred, like lakes, comes in various depths. The depth of hate varies from person to person, but I suppose you could do a hate average to see which hates tend to have the most severity.

          I’d agree that big hates are fed by little hates. In some ways it is like litter. I’ve noticed on my various runs that it usually begins with small litter (paper, cans, bottles, etc.) and then this encourages big litter (up to and including fridges and cars).

          • biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 1:16 pm

            Graffiti also lends an apt comparison:

            “The mere presence of graffiti doubles the number of people littering and stealing in a neighborhood, new research suggests.
            The results, which are detailed in the Nov. 21 [2008] issue of the journal Science, support and expand on the so-called broken windows theory, which forms the backbone of many crime prevention programs in major cities such as New York”

            The theory is that if you eliminate the graffiti and the broken windows and the litter and change the pervasive visual landscape of lawlessness and hopelessness, crime will become more manageable.

            Applied to racism:1/ Eliminate the racist slurs (verbal garbage)2/ Eliminate the broken windows (hopelessness represented by vacant tenements and storefronts that are easy targets for vandalism and signs of urban decay and economic failure)3/Eliminate the litter (both of the above and the racist himself) and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a handle on racism.

            Here’s an interesting sidenote that seems to apply to recent articles here. Make of it what you will.

            http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/01/more-birther-stuff/

            • magus71 said, on August 1, 2009 at 3:27 pm

              I agree with this study. Interestingly, I think that not only does language show what we are like on the inside, I think language can affect who we will become.

              Even though I do curse, I think I’m actually making myself a worse person by doing so. Of course I’m mature enough to be able to control it when needed, but I think we transform ourselves with our own words. Speak or certain races or people in hateful ways–even in jest–and we may bcome what we pretend to be–a hateful person.

            • biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 5:29 pm

              “Speak or certain races or people in hateful ways–even in jest–and we may bcome what we pretend to be–a hateful person.”

              It’s possible a person is not “pretending” to be hateful even when speaking in jest. Because of the irrationality of bigotry he may have long ago stepped far over the line that separates the normal from the abnormal individual; sadly, the bigot may think *he’s* the normal one and the object of his hatred is outside the norm.

              We have one thing in common. I curse, too. Lots. But I believe that the basic pressures of life in our society (like keeping a job, avoiding immature and unnecessary conflicts, etc.) and our respect for those we love dearly teach us early on to keep our potty mouths under control.

            • kernunos said, on August 4, 2009 at 2:36 am

              Having small children around helps cure the cursing. I have never been a big curser. My wife on the other hand needs a bar of soap.

            • biomass2 said, on August 4, 2009 at 7:52 am

              I’m posting this reply here because on my machine there is no “reply” to click at your other post though, obviously there is one here. :(

              “I think it is just easy for people to grab hold of the easiest difference at hand when they sling their hate. My example would be Mel Gibson. The police said he was upset he got arrested when he got pulled over for DUI. Would he have gone on about anti Semitic racial slurs if the Jewish officer had an Irish last name?”

              It’s a bit different with the Gibson situation. First, Mel’s got some other problems. There are few people who don’t know the possible very deadly consequences of smoking and or drunk driving. Smokers choose to smoke and kill themselves. We know that they also kill others, and society has sensibly taken steps to prevent that subtle and malodorous form of mass murder. Mel chooses to drink and drive, . Mel’s other problem is that the Jewish policeman didn’t have an easily identified physical trait that may have thrown up a warning flag to stop “Mel the Besotted” from flapping his semi-numb lips.

              Unfortunately for blacks in this country, black skin *is* an “easy difference” to “sling . . . hate” at. Among a certain group of people in this country black skin provides a convenient focus for mindless hatred. Though their brand of racism is not the only one around, I think it’s not totally unfair to brand these people the worst kinds of ‘racists’. They don’t need to or want to delve into the actions, thoughts, experiences, personality or the humanity of their victims to know in their little dark hearts that the man under the black skin is the focus of their hatred.

      • magus71 said, on August 1, 2009 at 10:54 am

        Mike,

        I agree that most of what we see out there as far as “hate” goes, is what you have called churlishness. It’s more an attempt to cause some chaos, somehow, somewhere.

        As Morgan Freeman’s character in The Dark Knight tells Batman: “Some men just like to watch the world burn.”

        Kind of like dropping a caterpillar on an anthill.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2009 at 11:32 am

          True. To modify a quote from another movie:

          Mildred: What’re you hating against, Johnny?
          Johnny: Whaddya got?

      • kernunos said, on August 4, 2009 at 2:29 am

        Biomass, you sound like you are fishing for an answer but I have to agree with Mike. I think it is just easy for people to grab hold of the easiest difference at hand when they sling their hate. My example would be Mel Gibson. The police said he was upset he got arrested when he got pulled over for DUI. Would he have gone on about anti Semitic racial slurs if the Jewish officer had an Irish last name? I think he wouldn’t. He would have grabbed at whatever difference he could find at hand I’m sure.

  3. biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 10:40 am

    magus71:
    “I’m not sure there’s any police terminology for it, except perhaps, professionalism.”

    A perfectly innocuous word: “professionalism”. It’s telling, that a more pejorative phrase doesn’t exist. Yet the black cop defends the white cop, and automatically he’s an “Uncle Tom” in the eyes of some of his black peers. Of course the phrase wouldn’t even exist were it not for our slave-holding past. Just reinforces the point that the racist attitudes bred by slavery are alive and well on both sides of the divide in 21st century American life.

  4. biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    magus71: “It’s more an attempt to cause some chaos, somehow, somewhere.”

    This raises an important question: “To what end?”

    • biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 1:51 pm

      Did Bin Laden attack the World Trade Center “to watch the world burn”?
      Did Timothy McVeigh bomb the Murrah building to watch “the caterpillar squirm”?
      Did the Tiller=killer march into a church and kill his victim for kicks?
      Did the “jerk” in Texas drag the black kid to his death “just to watch him die” (Johnny Cash)?
      Do most racists feel their victims are inferior beings. Do they enjoy seeing them squirm on anthills?

      Following are the big question(s) I was aiming at in my previous comment:
      How thick is the line between the twisted (mis)belief that underlies an action and the action itself? When can we just shrug off any racial slur (delivered orally or in email or written in the sky) and call it a typical human weakness?

      * * *

      Maybe you’re right magus. Maybe we should just put it all behind us and move on. Like the looky-loos at an accident scene. Nothing to see here folks.
      Anyway, it’s likely the seeds of hatred sown over the centuries will explode into their hideous growth even far into the future no matter what we do. Perhaps we should just start preparing now to clean up the resulting mess.

  5. biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    “Speak or certain races or people in hateful ways–even in jest–and we may bcome what we pretend to be–a hateful person.”

    Or pretend not to be. And the shift is so subtle, the line so thin, we’ll be absolutely certain we haven’t crossed it: “I’m not a racist, but. . .”

    Hey. We’ve got something in common. I curse, too. The demands of survival in our society (keeping a job, etc.) and respect for those we care about teach us to control our potty mouths.

  6. biomass2 said, on August 1, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Michael, has anyone notified you that sometimes your program deposits a new comment in some random location further up the page so that the new comment will appear before comments posted *before* it? See my 4:17 pm post that appears before your 11:29 post. When I returned and found that my 4:17 post didn’t appear following magus’ 3:27 comment–the one it was designed to comment on—, I rewrote it and posted it again. Best I can tell,the latest version is now in proper chronological position.

    I can see why a later post, written in reply to particular comment, will appear on the list before a stand-alone post written later.But from my experience there are many times when a comment doesn’t come equipped with a reply function. . . Then I’m left to write a stand-alone response such as the one described in para. 1 that, unfortunately, may appear randomly, surprisingly, and frustratingly at some “undisclosed location” in the list of comments. This has happened often enough to me that I’ve decided to bring it to your attention.

    Oh,and by the way. I really appreciate your ongoing efforts with this blog. Thanks.

    • kernunos said, on August 4, 2009 at 2:33 am

      I have noticed this many times. You press reply at a certain spot and it ends up somewhere else in the post.

  7. Dave said, on August 1, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Tricycle-riding?

  8. magus71 said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:28 am

    This explains to the Race Mongers how it really is:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2009/08/02/2009-08-02_i_was_a_racial_profiler.html


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