Obama’s Teachable Moment;
or Male Egos and their class, in black and white
Professor of Politics
July 19, 2009
Author of the forthcoming: The Audacity of Races and Genders, A personal and global
story of the Obama Election, Zed Press, and Palgrave, 2009. See: http://www.ithaca.edu/zillah
for a listing of her many books and political activism.
With the school year beginning soon and thoughts about my new honors seminar
entitled “New Races/New Sexes/New Genders looming, I decided to jot down some
notes on the “racial profiling” incident of black professor Henry Louis Gates, by the
white police officer James Crowley. The endless media attention of this not-so-rare event
seemed like a perfect instance in which to examine the troubled and shifting meanings of
race, better described as “white privilege”, and how economic class and gender are too
readily silenced as part of the process of understanding it.
The story is (too) well known by now. A possible break-in in progress was
reported to the police by a neighbor. The police arrive and assume the worst even though
Henry Louis Gates, professor extraordinaire of Harvard University, is the assumed
culprit. The major hitch is that Gates lives in the house that he jimmied the door of. He
was already inside when the police arrived. He also had identification to prove who he
was. Being black, all these other points are compromised in their effect.
But this is not the whole story. Gates is not just black but he is wealthy and well
educated. Crowley is not just white, but fourth generation working/middle class. And
both, besides being defined by race and class, are male, as in gendered as “men”. But the
Gates-Crowley affair is narrated usually as one of race, rarely of class, but never as
gender, even though all eyes are focused on black men. Race is not a static thing. The
meaning of white privilege shifts and changes depending on economic class and gender
while each intersects with the other, so a black male has different gender privilege than a
white privileged male; and this gets more complex alongside class. Meanwhile the
discussion of “race” seems to exclude black women who are altogether absent in this
If you are black, you may be readily associated with crime, and drugs, and even
the slave trade long past its relevance or validity. Professor Gates is a long way from the
slave ship, or the ghetto, and yet not. He got angry because he knows all this and knows
how unfair and debilitating this racist history is. As the media story evolves plenty of
blacks are asking where Gates has been all his life. Gates himself admits he has lived a
privileged and protected existence.
Skip Gates got angry, and rightly so. But he is also awfully lucky to have thought
that the world has changed more than it has. He was made to feel vulnerable in a way
that he usually does feel. On NPR news he said the incident “made me realize” the depth of his anger. Part of his anger was that his class privilege allowed him to forget what he
absolutely already knows. Being humiliated and powerless, even if only momentarily, is
different than knowing that others live with this reality all the time.
Gates is a fabulous scholar. His book America Behind the Color Line eloquently
documents how black people’s lives have become more segregated from each other over
time. The middle class has quadrupled while the numbers of black children living in
poverty has remained at 40 percent. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy
Now Gates says that race is also always about economics; that slavery was as much about
economics, as race. He says: “It’s easy to rally around obviously, blatantly racist
incidents. It’s much harder to figure out how to divvy up the pie, how to make structural
adjustments in the American economy, at a time of scarcity, at a time when the pie is
perceived to be shrinking”.
President Obama weighed in at his prime time press conference devoted to the
economy and health care when asked by a reporter what he thought of the Gates-Crowley
incident. He said Gates is a friend and he does not have all the facts, but offers that the
Cambridge police acted stupidly given how the incident unfolded.
Obama sounds elitist and condescending when he sums up the event as stupid.
Obama, who is usually careful with his words makes a mistake to defend a rich Harvard
professor while attributing stupidity to the not-rich police. Crowley said in a CNN
interview that the minute Gates told him he was a professor at Harvard he knew this
could get big and ugly.
As I said, race does not stand still. Obama usually focuses on how much has
changed for the better in black people’s lives and points to his own election as proof of
this. He usually prefers to stay away from “racial” explanations. He chose to not run as a
black candidate, even if in the end his race was made central to his campaign against his
Despite all the above, Obama thought Gates was treated unfairly as a black man.
The incident was racially defined because white privilege is always present, implicitly or
explicitly. The fact that Gates is black colored the episode. Gates felt wounded, and
angry, and outraged by this violation in his own home. The officer felt demeaned by
what felt like a belligerent ungrateful black man. Each one’s ego was slighted.
The recent incident bespeaks the racialized existence black people live in. But
there is no easy clear read here, because color and race are always mediated through
economic class and gender as well. Leon Lashley, a Black police officer that was with
Crowley the night of the altercation and arrest says that the arrest was entirely justified.
A multiracial group of police officers has also come forth with a statement of support for
James Crowley. There is more than a bit of class solidarity here not to mention a bit of
cross-racial male bonding.
This incident has brought forth much discussion of the black man’s dilemma in
white America. But there is also the black woman to consider here. It is not totally clear
to me that if Gates were female, and/or if the officer was as well, that once it was clear
that Gates belonged in the house, that there would have been an arrest. This is not to say
that a black woman might not have been furious and angry at the unfolding events. There
could have been screaming, and anger. But in the end, one or both of them would
probably have found some middle ground.Although race and class are at play, so is gender. Often, men get angry. They
don’t like to be put down. There is no forgiving or collaboration to avert a fist-fight or
hissy fit of sorts. White men often are positioned to be able to get “even” as well,
especially if they might be police. Given white privilege, the apology, the generosity of
spirit, the willingness to avert a confrontation was Crowley’s responsibility.
It is time to complicate the narrative: racial white privilege is always threaded
through gender and class privilege as well. If we can learn this truth maybe we can
actually move forward without using language that constrains, rather than informs. In
sum: let us think about how black men and women are defined in both old and new ways
by class, race and gender. Let us recognize that even when no females are present that the
politics of gender is. Let us begin a conversation about these changing and complex
Such querying is what I love about the classroom—the possibility of finding new
meanings—rather than the sound bites of the mainstream media. Hopefully Obama will
take this teaching moment seriously especially if Gates and Crowley come for a beer at
the White House.
Obama’s Teachable Moment;