Great article in The Nation Magazine: “Beer and Sympathy”

01 Aug

Gary Younge wrote a great article in the August 17, 2009 edition of The Nation about the “beer summit” that took place between President Barack Obama, Officer James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I particularly liked these passages:

This lesson should come in two parts.

First, all such tales attempt to stage racism as a crude morality play, with individuals as absolute victims and absolute villains, rather than as a system of oppression that works primarily through institutions. The victim must have no priors and no drugs. And unless the perpetrator is photographed with a billy club in hand and uses racial slurs that are recorded on tape, we are supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.

For an individual, that is fair. For a system, it is farcical. While it may be intriguing to speculate about what two people may or may not have been thinking, feeling and intending at any given moment, the proof of racism is in the odds. Black people in America fall foul of not just the law of the land but the law of probabilities as well. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and executed. A ridiculous black man and a ridiculous white man do not stand the same chances when put before a man with a badge, gun or gavel. The figures bear this out, and at the end of the day, nooses and burning crosses shouldn’t be necessary to demonstrate racism’s reach.

Second, the fact that racism might affect a Harvard professor is amazing only if one buys into the idea that black people who have reached a certain status should be exempt from racism. If you believe that, then the problem with Gates’s arrest is not racism. It’s that he was treated like a regular black person. The issue moves from ‘If it happened to him it really can happen to anybody’ to ‘It shouldn’t have happened to him because he is a somebody.'”


“These two interventions [Obama’s NAACP speech and Gates’ arrest – my brackets] feel like the Talented Tenth circling the wagons. There are a huge number of explanations for black underachievement in this country, none of which are merely ‘excuses.’ But Gates’s experience also gave the lie to Obama’s exhortations. Gates got good grades, probably never cut school and does not live amid crime and gangs. If he had, the incident might have ended up in anything from a police record to his death while never even making the local paper. Not that Gates didn’t have a legitimate grievance. But he probably could have handled the matter without the help of the commander in chief.

The same cannot be said for, say, Troy Davis, who sits on death row in Georgia for the murder of an off-duty police officer, which he insists he did not commit. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified Davis have recanted or contradicted their original testimony, which they claim was made under police coercion. One of the remaining two is also a suspect in the crime. Desmond Tutu, the pope and Jimmy Carter (all conspicuously silent on the Gates saga) have called for a new trial or evidentiary hearing. This is a matter where Obama’s involvement could tip the balance between life and death.”

While Prof. Gates had every right to be angry about being arrested in his own home for a silly “disorderly conduct” charge (that was later dropped), there are far more cases of racial profiling and police brutality that are underreported or not reported at all. Gates’ case was fairly minor and this whole “teachable moment” charade, to me, does not mean anything. Racial profiling and police brutality will still occur in American society even after this “beer summit”. The only way to combat these injustices is for citizens to hold police accountable for any wrongdoing and abuse that occurs in their communities. In addition, rather than behaving like an occupying army, police officers should establish a friendly and sincere relationship with the communities they serve in order to protect the people who live there. But, of course, it’s going to take dedicated struggle from the masses in order to make this happen.


Here’s the article: “Beer and Sympathy” by Gary Younge (The Nation, July 29, 2009).


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