Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Be careful what you wish for: the Professor Gates affair

To any grownup person there can't be much doubt about what actually happened: after a long flight back from China, Professor Gates, not a spring chicken anymore, was tired. On top of that he had the flu or a cold, always aggravating. Then, he finally gets home, and can't get in the damn house and has to break into it. In other words, he now feels like shit and is probably looking to get a beer and go to bed. But then, to top it all off, a few minutes later he's followed in by a policeman who wants to know what he's doing there.

Now he's just about at the end of his tether. He's a well-known Harvard professor, and black, which, in the state he's in when confronted by this white policeman, amplifies his angst to the point of explosion. So, for him, it now gets visceral, never mind that he's an intellectual, this is deeper than that. He mouths off; "contempt of cop" as they say. All of this is as clear and understandable as the sun coming up in the morning.

The woman who phoned in to 911 was asked by the dispatcher whether the intruders were African American. She said that she didn't know and that, by the way, she wasn't sure if they were breaking and entering or not, or if anything was even wrong; she was calling as a precaution. The police sergeant, responding to the call apparently asked the dispatcher over the radio whether she had any information on the race of the reported malefactors. She told him one might possibly be Hispanic, but she wasn't sure. At the house, Gates, after mouthing off, was arrested on something like disturbing the peace, handcuffed, taken to jail, photographed and then released.

As to racial profiling, in spite of what has been written about the nice policeman, a well-thought-of trainer against this very thing, there was, and is, profiling of all sorts going on in this encounter: Why did the 911 dispatcher ask about race in the first place? Why did the sergeant, on his way to the scene, inquire of the dispatcher about race? It seems quite obvious that this is a factor built right into the system. And perhaps for good reason. In a pretty ritzy neighborhood, the presence of someone who doesn't ordinarily live in such a place is indicative, useful information.

I'm 75 years old and I find myself being profiled all the time, but in a good way. I'm often given a break, and deference, for the very reason that I am an old person. And, no matter what they say, with the perspective on reality that age gives one, I can assure you that profiling for security reasons in airports goes on routinely, though invisibly, right alongside of the frisking of a little old white lady with her shoes off, just so that no one can say that profiling is going on. It would be silly for profiling not to be done in this instance, and in innumerable others. It's useful.

My first academic experience was in a Catholic grade school. The teachers were nuns in full habit. While not routine, it was not unusual to be wrapped over the knuckles with a ruler for malfeasance, often for the offense of "contempt of nun". And there were other, more subtle, corrective and coercive measures applied routinely as well. As a young student one is faced every day with uniforms and coercion, clearly separating those who run the show from those who don't.

On an airplane, the captain is the captain, and he wears a uniform that lets everyone know that. The cabin attendants do as well. And nowadays, with higher security, they have a certain amount of coercive power which one ignores at one's peril.

I have never been in the military, and that's probably a good thing. But my understanding is that a clear distinction between officers and men (generically speaking of course), is maintained, and respect—even if feigned—is a strict requirement. The military seems to think this ranking is necessary for discipline. No doubt why they wear uniforms which have the distinguishing characteristics that form a hierarchy.

Now we come to the police. I have been confronted by the police for minor traffic violations. I was, I suppose by my early training, respectful and polite, and of course I'm white too which certainly didn't hurt anything. So I was never arrested and handcuffed. Nevertheless I did feel uncomfortable and somewhat helpless as, in the encounter, the officer seemed to speak a special language taken from a police manual that inhibited ordinary conversation; he asks the questions; you do the answering. Period.

In spite of never having been arrested I did once take it into my head to protest a ticket and so I went to court. There, the judge had on a robe, though he was obviously an ordinary civilian underneath, and he was seated on an elevated platform, while I was at a lower level with the hoi polloi. Once again, here was a uniform, and a certain subtle, coercive demand for respect.

This litany of authority could go on to include pharmacists, firemen, "holy men" of one sort or another, doctors, and many others, and not excluding professors when they are lecturing. The point is that society seems to have found that in certain situations things work more efficiently when a hierarchy is established. This consensus has been weakening, probably since the sixties, and constraints are being routinely applied to limit discipline and to restrict coercive power. The jury is out, weighing the efficacy of these changes. For now, society seems more and more tolerant of aberrational behavior and ever more set on resolving "issues" verbally or psychologically. An extreme example, but not ridiculous, consider the attempt at verbally coercing Iran out of an atomic bomb. Good luck to all.

Be careful what you wish for.