A Philosopher's Blog

Everything isn’t About Race. Really.

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2009

As the Gates incident starts to drift away from center stage, it is still quite reasonable to discuss the incident and the issues it raises.

Race, of course, was a major factor in the incident. Gates seems to have over-reacted because the cop was white. The incident got the coverage it did, in part, because of concerns about race. However, it is important to keep in mind that everything isn’t about race.

As a friend of mine often points out, white people can treat each other badly. The same for people of all the other colors. After all, it is not like whites are universally saints with other whites or that blacks are eternally sweet angels with each other. People can do mean or hateful things for reasons that have nothing to do at all with race. For example, I’ve had white folks throw things at me from moving cars when I was running. I’ve also had white folks try to start fights with me, for no apparent reason. Some people, as my friend says, are just assholes.

On a more moderate level, people get upset and angry with each other for reasons that have nothing at all to do with race. After all, we can do all sorts of things to annoy each other.

Going back to the Gates incident, it has been suggested that Crowley arrested Gates because Gates is black. Now, even if it is assumed that Crowley did not have adequate legal grounds to arrest Gates, to assume that Crowley arrested him because of racism would be quite a leap. The way Gates acted was no doubt very annoying to Crowley and this probably contributed to the officer choosing to make the arrest. However, this would hardly be racism.  After all, white cops sometimes arrest (and sometimes taser) white people that sufficiently annoy them. Of course, cops should only arrest people when it is warranted, but sometimes what annoys the cop also warrants arrest. In the case of Gates, he seems to have acted in a way that would rather annoy Crowley and also in a way that warranted his arrest. If Gates had stayed calm and discussed the matter with Crowley, there would have been no incident. While there are racist cops, Crowley certainly does not seem to be one. In fact, he seems quite the opposite.

Like most folks, I have had a few encounters with the police. In some cases, I was stopped for what seemed to be no good reason. For example, while on a training run for the Columbus, Ohio Marathon, a friend and I were stopped by an officer. We were doing nothing illegal nor acting in any way that was suspicious. Well, other than running. Of course, my friend was black, and he later suggested that he was stopped for RWB (running while black). However, I have also been stopped while running alone by white cops, so perhaps race was not the main factor-maybe it was a bias against runners.

While I could have gone off the handle and accused the cop of harassing us and even of being a racist, I instead stayed calm (running helps with that) and answered his questions politely. I talked a bit more with him, made a few jokes about running, and we parted with smiles. In fact, he wished us luck in the marathon. Perhaps he did have  a legitimate reason to stop us, perhaps not. However, I knew that being confrontational would only lead to needless escalation, so I avoided that.

Of course, people should not be expected to simply back down and let it slide if the police act improperly. However, it should be remembered that a cop is also a person and interacting with him or her in a calm and polite way has the same effect it has on anyone else-it lowers the chance that things will go down badly. Likewise, starting a conflict and being needlessly confrontational will elicit the opposite response.

Yes, race can play a factor in how people react to each other. But it isn’t everything. How we act is also a major factor in how people respond to us.

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  1. magus71 said, on July 29, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Sometimes people need to think hard about their rights and what is actually good for them. For instance, if a pedestrian is on the sidewalk ready to cross the road in a crosswalk, he has the right of way. If the pedestrian sees an 18 wheeler racing toward him that doesn’t look like it can stop in time, the pedestrian would be pretty stupid to assert his “right” to cross the road over the truck’s right to obey the laws inertia.

    • biomass2 said, on July 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm

      “Sometimes people need to think hard about their rights and what is actually good for them.”
      I think that’s written into the original intention of the Constitution of the United States. . . ? Maybe one of our SC justices could find it for us.

      The metaphor is a bit confusing. Let’s say—for the purposes of your post and its relevance to the current topic—that the pedestrian is a person of color (Professor Gates). The truck must be a Caucasian American (Officer Crowley, right?). But, let’s assume the truck could also be black. That’ll save wasted time arguing over an insignificant point.

      The confusing part to me is the phrase ” . . .doesn’t look like it can stop in time.” Why, exactly, would Officer Crowley, black or white, *look* like he “can [not] stop in time”, literally or figuratively? That is, how could one discern that the officer could not stop in time? Why shouldn’t he be able to stop in time? I’m assuming, since “inertia” is not being used in its literal sense here–Crowley(mass) wasn’t actually rushing(motion)at Gates— the word must be part of the larger metaphor. Is there any kind of physical/metaphorical law governing the officer’s inability to stop in time?

      • magus71 said, on July 30, 2009 at 3:34 am

        The point is, that even IF Gates were being unjustly dealt with at the time, his intellect should have told him that there were avenues to deal with the situation. To jump to race as the cause for his problem was irrational and emotional. I seriously doubt that Gates has experienced a lifetime of racial degradation by whites, considering his position. What he HAS experienced is the many times incestuous world of Harvard. I suspect he’s been taught what the world is like, instead of having actually experienced it. I prefer to live and learn, as both the classroom and the gritty alleys have something to teach us; one about emotion and humanity, the other about stoic calculation. We are not complete humans without both measures, I think.

        We’ve all done things we should not have. Gates did something he should not have, and I’m sure, given a second chance he would react differently. I’ve made my mistakes with words in the past. It took me about 5 years as a police officer to find a happy medium with diplomacy and physical action. I saw cops that made things worse with words and I saw cops who acted too late and caused problems for themselves by not being able to back up words. I prided myself on the art of deescalation, something that comes with age and the decline of youthful vigor. I came to see that people respect strength mixed with justice. When you’re right, people want to know you’ll back up what you say–diplomacy is useless without a strong arm behind it.

        Gates should be ashamed for his actions, given his intellect and standing. He should be even more ashamed about his comments to the media after the fact, when he no longer had the excuse of an emotional burst. He again made things worse not just for himself but for the country by reaching for racial biases that didn’t apply in this situation. Obama furthered the divide between blacks and whites with his statement. Both Gates’ and Obama’s words appear emotional and hypocritical given their positions in this greatest of countries.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on July 29, 2009 at 1:35 pm


  3. biomass2 said, on July 30, 2009 at 9:44 am


    My point—and I’d like to stay with it for a moment because it’s not “about race, really”— was that in your metaphor you used the words “an 18 wheeler racing toward him that doesn’t look like it can stop in time. . .”. I asked two questions.”That is, how could one discern that the officer could not stop in time? Why shouldn’t he be able to stop in time?”

    I don’t think your image choice was accidental ; I think it may be an accurate description, perhaps of the Gates situation, but most certainly of some encounters between police (black or white) and the citizenry (black or white)that you have experienced as a policeman. At the level of the ‘vehicle’ you chose, this is not a racial question–it’s more a question of what constitutes acceptable police conduct in a free society.

    You write ,”. . .even IF Gates were being unjustly dealt with at the time, his intellect should have told him. . .”

    Gates is at fault for not applying his intellect to avoid the oncoming truck. And if he were a non-intellectual he would be at fault for not applying his “stoic calculation”.
    At what point is the truck/cop at fault for being unable to “stop the truck”? Why should any American, black or white, have to fear that the “truck” may be out of control? Why should the “truck” be proceeding so incautiously into an intersection/ situation that it cannot stop in time? Aren’t these reasonable questions to ask in a free country? Aren’t these questions similar to those that might be asked by a police review board in a shooting?

    Instead of “suspecting” what Gates’ background might be, why not look into it? When you write “I suspect” you’re actually making an assumption based not on fact but on ‘your’ understanding of (in this case) the intellectual’s position–ivory tower, removed from reality etc. etc.— in this country, aren’t you? Wouldn’t I be a fool to automatically assume that someone who is rich is automatically greedy when with a little research and applied common sense I can discover that that other Gates and Warren Buffet and Rockefellers of many names give away billions and billions and billions of dollars on a regular basis?

    “Gates ‘did something he should not have.'”

    The final judgment, based on what I’ve read and heard and seen, is *still* not in on that. We’ve got the statements of Gates and Crowley’s police report. I have yet to see any neighbor’s statements of what happened once the police were on the scene. There were no cameras, sound-equipped or otherwise. Do we have conclusive evidence that Gate’s exceeded his free speech rights? Maybe there are detailed articles out there that I haven’t seen. Maybe more “evidence” will be revealed after the beer party at the WH. . . 🙂

    And now back to race:
    “furthered the divide between blacks and whites”

    Finally,to hear that such a divide actually exists. People have been telling me we’re post-racial, though here in Central Pa, the cracks of the divide are everywhere evident. They’ve been telling me that negative reactions to monkey dolls, and watermelons on the White House lawn etc. were mere misinterpretations resulting from a false sense of victimhood. I’ve said “No, there is a divide.Please. Am I the only sane one here?”
    Now thanks to you I do “not feel so all alone – [let’s go] get stoned…”

    • T. J. Babson said, on July 30, 2009 at 9:42 pm

      Some interesting points.


      Moreover—and this is a point I haven’t seen others make—when Gates was shouting in the hearing of passerbys that Crowley was a racist, Crowley must have regarded this as a threat to his entire career. Allegations of racism could result in losing his job, being publicly disgraced, being unable to get another good job—the end of everything he’d worked for all his adult life.

      Gates had much less to lose. His foolish mouthing off—in street talk, for goodness sake—at worst would get him a couple of hours in jail, as it did. That’s unpleasant, but even before being hauled off he could see a more-than-offsetting benefit: this could be the subject or the jumping off point for his next television documentary! Crowley had the power to put Gates in jail for a few hours, but not much else.

      Gates, on the other hand, had the power to destroy Crowley’s career. And he seemed to enjoy wielding that power, or at least to be acting in reckless disregard of his capacity to destroy the professional life of another human being. Yes, Gates was jet-lagged and presumably irritated that he was locked out of his house. But the possibility that Crowley was a decent professional, not at all a racist, properly investigating a possible crime, doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. Crowley was just one of the little people, a disposable commodity in the career of an academic superstar.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2009 at 7:10 am

        Interesting point. In that situation, Gates actually did have more power than Crowley. As you note, he could arrest Gates, but a charge of racism could be a career ending injury for Crowley.

      • biomass2 said, on July 31, 2009 at 9:48 pm

        Your first two paragraphs provide interesting and thoughtful perspectives on the incident(different “what-ifs”). I was going to end that last parenthetical clarification with “if you will”, but I didn’t want to risk a beat down, literal or figurative, for sounding like one of the academic elite. 🙂

        In the third para:”. . . a disposable commodity in the career of an academic superstar.” In the known history of this country,many many million black men, women, and children been “disposable commodit[ies]” in the lives of rich property owners. If Gates was viewing Crowley in that way, it is, in one sense “one small step for man, one giant step for mankind”. But it hardly eliminates white-on-black racism. *If* what you’ve written is an accurately imagined depiction of the situation, this merely replaces a little white-on-black with a little black-on-white racism. And that’s sad.

  4. toddyenglish said, on July 30, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    It has just been released that an officer on the Cambridge Police force, Justin Barrett, sent out a mass e-mail refering to Professor Gates as a “Black jungle Monkey.”

    True, not everything is about race. I agree 100%. However, in certain instances it definitely is. When there is racism on the police force that can be dangerous. Consciously and unconsciously many cops view any black man (if he’s six or sixty)as an adversary.
    Apparently Officer Crowley’s vaunted sensitivity training did not work too well in regards to his protege’.

    For me it was not about race at all. I just have a general distrust of policemen in general: black, white, male or female. Professor Gates is the victim in this situation and it is sad that he is being held culpable just because he spoke up in his own house. Crowley was wrong because he decided to bully an old man.

    • magus71 said, on July 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm

      How do black cops view black people? I suspect that the percentage of black police officers is higher than blacks in the general population.

      • magus71 said, on July 30, 2009 at 1:34 pm

        Oh–and Gates is not being held culpable in a legal sense: the charges were dropped by the DA.

      • biomass2 said, on July 30, 2009 at 7:34 pm

        “I suspect that the percentage of black police officers is higher than blacks in the general population.”

        With or without evidence to support this statement, I suspect its relevance is a bit suspect.

  5. magus71 said, on July 31, 2009 at 2:10 am

    “With or without evidence to support this statement, I suspect its relevance is a bit suspect.”

    Of course it’s relevant. If some are to assume that racism amongst police officers is systemic (as toddyenglish does; I’m familiar with the type…) than we have to consider how this can be, if my hypothesis is correct–that there are more blacks on police department as a percentage than in the general population. Of course the black officers may be racist against whites.

    I find it interesting that you’re not sharpshooting toddyenglishes idea that: “Consciously and unconsciously many cops view any black man (if he’s six or sixty)as an adversary.”

    Apparently toddyenglish has the powers of a Jedi, able to sense unconscious motivations.

    Seems there’s been a disturbance in the Force.

    • biomass2 said, on July 31, 2009 at 9:53 pm

      “my hypothesis”

      And I’ll honor it as such. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “relevant”. Considering that the actual numbers/percentages, etc. are still unknown, I’ll use the word “usefulness”. . .

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