I Wonder Who's Dissing Who Now?

July 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

If Gates had been white . . . . That’s the refrain you keep hearing from the left side of the street. There’s nothing else to suggest that racism was involved. Gates himself says as much:
If I had been white this incident never would have happened. . . .Whether he’s an individual racist? I don’t know—I don’t know him.
I’m not so sure. If Gates and the cab driver who helped force the door had been white, it’s much less likely the neighbor would have called the cops. But once the cop is there, and someone is challenging his authority, the scene may end in handcuffs, disorderly conduct charges, and artful police reports. Even for whites.

The trouble is that these two men managed to turn a misunderstanding into a contest of egos, or as Steve Teles puts it, a matter of “honor.” Honor, respect, dissing, messing with. “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” Gates allegedly yelled at the cop. And Sgt. Crowley showed Gates that he didn’t know who he was messing with – a cop. Each felt that the other was not according him Respect. Rodney Dangerfield as tragedy.

I’m asking a different question – not what if Gates had been white, but what if Gates and Crowley had been women? I think the tendency to turn misunderstandings or disagreements into character contests is largely a guy thing.* And I like to think that women would have behaved far more sensibly.

That’s why I was so impressed with Obama’s impromptu appearance at the daily press briefing. It wasn’t just that he broke protocol – instead of letting the press secretary handle it, he came to the press room himself and addressed the reporters directly (“you guys,” as he calls them). And it wasn’t just that he said he’d made a mistake (though that is a refreshing contrast to his predecessor). It’s that he had phoned Sgt. Crowley and tried to resolve the problem.

Here, and this wasn’t the first time, Obama frames things as “This is a problem; let’s find a solution,” when others (like Gates and Crowley) frame it as “Let’s have a contest – fight, debate, law suit, etc. – to determine who’s right (i.e., who’s morally superior.)”

No doubt, the boys in the blogs and elsewhere will continue to frame this as a zero-sum game. This morning’s New York Post declares, “Obama’s Cop Backdown.” What I see as problem-solving, the Post sees as a fight, a contest, a challenge, with Obama backing down.

* Yes, I’m well aware that the best-known statement on respect, clearly spelling out the concept and its importance, is by a woman. And yes, elsewhere in the culture, Ann Coulter is, as far as I know, a woman. But few generalizations about gender differences apply to all cases.


trrish said...

I also wondered about class issues. But of course, I did work on that project about the "declining significance of race", or as we preferred to call it, the "increasing significance of class." So my mind skews that way.

Jay Livingston said...

I think Thomas Frank in the Wall St. Journal nailed it: the left framed it as a racial incident, the right framed it as class. The right got the better of it. The shorthand version in most of the media was the Professor vs. the Policeman -- i.e., the elitist Harvard guy vs. the middle/working class ordinary guy.

Elizabeth said...

You haven't been harassed by enough female cops.

I live in a city with a heavily lesbian police department, and it doesn't stop tham from harassing homeless people, artists, and activists every day on the town's main thoroughfare.

We're also the city with the most racially disproportionate sentencing in Wisconsin -- not sure how much of that begins at the policing stage, but you have to figure.

Also, since when is it mutually incompatible for incidents to express class power and racism?