Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree has just released a book called The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America. The book discusses the July 16, 2009 arrest of Gates, a Harvard professor, by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley on his front porch of his home. His arrest in handcuffs for the impossible crime of breaking into his own house, or shall we say, being home while black, set off a debate throughout the country on race, class, and law enforcement.
President Obama’s initial reaction to last summer’s Gates arrest was less of a politician’s answer than the sincere reaction of a black man living in America. The president said the officers “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates. And he was right. But in this pivotal moment in his administration on the issue of race, Obama paid a price with white voters, and it has gone downhill ever since.
Immediately following Obama’s reaction to the Gates incident last July, the president began to slip in the polls among whites, with his approval rating dropping from 53 percent to 46 percent according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In recent months, his approval rating has averaged between 46 and 50 percent. One poll gave the president a mid-to-high-40s approval rating, including a majority approval among Latinos and over 90 percent support from African-Americans— but only a 35 percent thumbs-up from whites. In addition, a recent Gallup survey placed his approval at 39 percent among whites, 63 percent among nonwhites, and 93 percent among blacks.
Meanwhile, other polls revealed the gaping divide in racial perceptions between blacks and whites, and attitudes about the Gates arrest. For example, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed racism among police officers is common, and 44 percent saying it is rare. While 47 percent of whites said it is common, and 49 percent said it is rare, 86 percent of blacks surveyed concluded that police racism is common. And while 66 percent of whites believed a white homeowner would have been treated the same as Prof. Gates, only 25 percent of blacks agreed.
Similarly, an ABC/Washington Post poll on the Gates case found that 76 percent of African-Americans said black folks do not receive the same treatment as whites from the police. Only 34 percent of whites—fewer than half the percentage of blacks—believed blacks do not receive equal treatment as whites. In that study, 37 percent of blacks said they felt they had been stopped by the cops because of their race, including 59 percent of men and 22 percent of women. Also, 20 percent of other non-whites said they were stopped by police based on race.
Well, so much for that teachable moment on race that the Henry Louis Gates incident promised to become, at least in the hearts and minds of so many people of goodwill. It should remind us of the ways in which many idealistic Americans poured all of their hopes and dreams into the vessel that was the Obama candidacy, praying for the ushering in of the colorblind society. Not to downplay the transformative and symbolic nature of that election victory, but that did not happen, nor should it have happened.
But why was the Gates incident a turning point for white support of the president? I have a few suggestions:
1. Obama was supposed to be different from other black people. Barack Obama was going to be different from the rest. Sure, he was black, but he was different. Better than black. After all, he was clean and articulate, his diction was on point, and he went to fancy Ivy League schools. Most of all, Obama passed his test on the Sunday morning talk show circuit with the obligatory repudiation of angry black leaders. And most of all, he sufficiently threw his pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, under the bus, comforting whites who would entertain the thought of inviting him for dinner. But his Gates comments exceeded the comfort level of whites who are squeamish about race.
For awhile he seemed like “one of us,” they thought, a white guy with a tan who downplays the importance of race. (The astute black observer knew he had a fine line to walk in garnering white votes, and the Obama swagger betrayed him in any case.) In the end, Obama made the mistake of thinking like a black man—demonstrating his blackness, and, his willingness to, how dare he, identify with black issues. The most extreme form of this sentiment was reflected in Rep. Steve King, who recently said that Obama has a “default mechanism” that “favors the black person.”
2. Whites hold a more favorable view of the police. White communities have a fundamentally different relationship with the police than black and Latino neighborhoods. In white areas, police were always there to serve and protect, rescue cats from trees, and the like. In other words, the police are trusted. Historically, for many communities of color, the police were an occupying force, and they were on call to harass, arrest, abuse, and sometimes shoot to kill. When Obama criticized the Cambridge police for arresting Gates, he embraced a version of reality that was alien to many whites, yet all too familiar to African-Americans.
3. Whites have a more positive view of the criminal justice system. After all, it is stacked in their favor. Around 70 percent of America’s prisoners are people of color, yet 90 percent of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are white. Now, that is a recipe for a disaster of a criminal justice system in which the inequities are built in. Blacks are regarded as a criminal element and presumed guilty. They are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for the same crime, and locked up with longer sentences. Some neighborhoods of color in New York City have what are referred to as “million dollar blocks.” In other words, $1 million in taxpayer dollars are spent annually to incarcerate the prisoners who come from each of these city blocks.
4. America is still in denial about race. Some whites are tired of hearing about racism, tired of white guilt, and are ready to proclaim that racism is dead. They don’t believe racial discrimination still exists, unless it is reverse discrimination. After all, the President is black, and he received 43 percent of the white vote, not to mention 54 percent of young white voters. So, how can you still call America a racist nation?
President Obama’s Sgt. Crowley comment gave the country an opportunity to study race, to delve into the problems of racial profiling and racial injustice. Unfortunately, they didn’t take the bait, opting instead to retreat to the safe, gated community of their mind.