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Works and Days

Lose, Lose When You Talk About Race

July 26th, 2009 - 11:45 am

I know a number of Punjabis in rural California. Most are much darker than Henry Louis Gates. They lack his money, influence, and contacts. English is not their first language. Their turbans and clothes set them apart from the Mexican-American majority establishment—and they are the objects of jokes and worse. But so far I have not heard a single one complain that as persons of color they either cannot make it in a racist America or they need affirmative action as remedy for our collective sins.

Do As I Say, Not As I…

4) There is an official “truth” that our elites mouth, and a private one that 300 million live by. If Americans regret that a young African-American male might be unduly pulled over while innocently cruising Beverly Hills (and they bristle at such unfairness), they also regret that a white person who took a wrong turn and began biking or driving into Watts or South Central might well be assaulted–or worse. So profiling means different things to different people.

Yet these are private angsts that are never voiced. A John Edwards, Robert Kennedy, Jr. , Barrack Obama, or Al Gore may lecture us on our assorted racial, class and environmental sins, but we suspect that in the past they have chosen to live in rather aristocratic fashion, well away from the failing and often dangerous schools and neighborhoods that the objects of their disdain often struggle within. If Al Gore jets back and forth from his mansion to cash in on global warming, Rev. Wright leaves his white enclave and three-story new mansion to rail about white privilege. No wonder most Americans snored about Gates-gate as a tiny flare-up involving more  class than race.

Crying Wolf

5). Most Americans simply do not believe Gates or a Governor Patrick or a President Obama that they experience much racial discrimination in their lives. They may, but again most tend to think their class mitigates it. To the extent race is raised by the well-heeled, it is more likely by such African-American elites themselves, and proves to be of career advantage (as I can attest after serving on nearly a dozen hiring committees in the California State University system. One Dean once brazenly called to demand, “Just don’t dare send me up a white guy, period!”).

Most elite African-Americans I know are not worried so much that the police will profile their children (although many will publicly attest that), but privately are far more worried that their sons’ upper-middle class tastes, accents, and “acting white” assimilation will incur fury from the black underclass—and with such disdain real physical danger as well. That is a tragedy that remains unmentioned.

Postscript.

I talked to a number of people about the Gates mess. None were really sympathetic to his writ. And I noticed two other general reactions among friends. One, almost everyone had stories of being pulled over or visited by police in which a wrong word might well have earned them a trip to the pokey. (My own is being pulled over a few years ago by a young hot-shot highway patrolman on a motorcycle (flattop hair, bulging biceps, tough-guy persona) for going 65 in a 55 mile per hour zone. When I pointed out that the car ahead was going 80 mph, he said “So what if he was?” (good point). And when he snarled that I had presented him the insurance form rather than the registration (I had not), I suggested that he read it more closely before speaking. The result was that I waited 20 minutes in the sun while he sat smiling behind my car, oh-so-slowly writing out a ticket. Moral: you just smile and do what the cop says).

Two: almost everyone (minorities included) I talked with could recall one or two personal incidents of some criminal action committed by a minority male against their person or property. Call that profiling or stereotyping. I could attest at least four (other than the near yearly crash into my vineyard and fleeing driver and  abandoned vehicle): 1976, walking to the 7/11 in East Palo Alto and being attacked by an African-American male; 1978,  riding down University Avenue in Palo Alto near 101, and having two black males ride by in  a truck, get out and try to steal my bike with me on it; 1990, having three Mexican nationals burst into our home intent on robbery; 1998, having three police cars rush into my driveway in pursuit of fleeing Mexican national local drug lords, 2006 having an African-American burglar  break into my house, waking my daughter as he ran out with her purse. And so on–all incidents of no statistical import, but the sort of anecdotal remembrance that millions share and which unfairly or not make them at least understandable of why individuals make choices in where they drive, live, and work.

Is such recitation  racism? Were not, after all, those who depleted my AIG 401(k) account probably wealthy whites on Wall Street? Was not the broker who took my fruit and shorted me $1000 most likely a white professional? Perhaps.

But my point is only the public’s perception (born out by crime statistics) is that while financial and business elites may rob more from one, minority males in urban contexts engage in violent crime at higher than national averages and are more likely to use violence against one than the suspicious fruit trader or stock broker. That is an empirical fact, not a racist slur. Again, like it or not, crime soared in the 1970s-1990s and millions of Americans were the victims of robberies, break-ins, and assaults, and they have made the necessary adjustments in the way they shop, walk, visit, and drive–often all concealed beneath a veneer of denial.

And that unspoken fact too was in the background, when the president lectured us on the injustice of police supposedly profiling by race. (I think the President took one look at the Washington, D.C., public school system, and made the necessary profiling and generalizations to put his kids in the exclusive Sidwell-Friends prep school, as do many of the D.C. liberal elites.) All in all, a sensitive issue, made worse by the sort of uninformed presidential grandstanding that we have witnessed all too much in these last six months. (Since assuming office, the president has managed to slur in generic fashion those in the Special Olympics, surgeons, the elderly, vacationers to Las Vegas, and the police (more no doubt as well), building on his campaign stereotyping of “typical white people” and the middling classes of Pennsylvania–is there not a sensitivity trainer somewhere?)

Next postings will be more observations on Europe and the past, as I leave today overseas to give some lectures on Mediterranean history.

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