Thursday, July 30, 2009

Presumed Prejudiced

I've been watching the circus surrounding the incident between Professor "Skip" Gates and a policeman. It has been a circus. So far as I can tell the only winner has been Blue Moon Beer.

They've gotten a ton of free publicity out of it and probably only donated a few cases of beer to the White House. Nobody seems the slightest bit mad at them.

Every time one of these dust-ups occurs I wonder what really happened. I don't suppose anyone will ever really know or care. Everyone seems to have retreated behind their own preconceptions. Facts hardly matter.

I wonder why everyone presumed the basis of the incident was racial? How can anyone know. As far as I can tell no racial slurs were used by the policeman and all of the radio recording seem calm and even in tone.

Recently one of my friends who tends bar at a very well known place frequented mostly by tourists was upset because a patron accused her of being racist. She didn't place the change in the patrons hand, which was somehow racist. She never places the change in my hand either. That notion seems a little off the wall. Don't most people in bars (unless it's very crowded) place the change on the bar, with the receipt. In some of the nicer bars they put the change in a nice vinyl American Express folder. This middle aged African American patron went off, my friend was both upset and angry at what she considered an unfair accusation.

Earlier this week I flipped on to WRBH, Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped. They were reading something about the shootout between NOPD and The Black Panthers in the Desire Projects back in 1970. It was written pretty much from the Panther Perspective, complete with Maoist rhetoric. How much has changed since then?

I wrote about an incident She was involved in. I'm still not sure if it was racial or not.

I don't consider myself prejudiced but maybe some other people do. I do know I can be curt, abrupt and have been called an asshole. I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity asshole. I think everyone has a right to be an asshole at least sometimes. But it doesn't really matter if it's a right or not, virtually everybody is one sometimes anyway.

I wonder at the unerring ability of some people to look into the content of a someone's character and see whether the other person a racist or an asshole or a racist asshole on the basis of limited, if any interaction.

Sunday morning I typically listen to as many of the Sunday morning shows as I can. I especially like ABC's Sunday morning with George Stephanopoulos. They have the best, most articulate panelists for their round table. There are only two regulars I can't stand Sam Donaldson, who comes across as an over bearing bully and Arianna Huffington who seems to come each time with a 3 x5 index card with one answer for all questions (last week it was a public option). She seems to me about a smart as Veronica White. I do especially like the Louisiana Contingent Cokie Roberts and Donna Brazile.

In any event this Sunday l'affaire Gates came up. After suitable platitudes about Race in America. Donna Bazile described how here brothers were taught to act if confronted by police. They were told keep their heads down, not to argue and to do what they were told. That's pretty much what I was taught. I may have missed something subtle here.

The discussion started me thinking about my interactions with Police Officers.

I haven't had a lot of run-ins with police in my life but I have had a few, especially when I was younger. Once on a road trip in college with several of my buddies we were pulled over by 3 Mississippi Highway Patrol cars and held at the point of several shotguns on a dark road for a good long while (probably not as long as it seemed at the time). Seems they were looking for armed robbery suspects driving a similar car. I was very polite, after I started breathing again.

Another time I was confronted the by the NOPD at gun point during Mardi Gras. Seems they thought we were trying to break into our car. My friend who's car it was had dropped his keys trying to unlock it. There was a lot of yelling, screaming and hands against the wall kind of stuff.

More recently I've been pulled over for driving a red car.

Post Katrina I was followed into my driveway by a police man. I was sure relieved when he turned on the blue lights. I shook his hand and told him to keep up the good work. I thought I'd written about that incident and others living in the wasteland, but I couldn't find it. I reread nearly the entire first two years of this blog looking for it. I left out a lot of stuff.

I often wonder how many "racial" incidents are just another person being an asshole, not a racist. Now if the person is spouting racist language or otherwise being obvious (sheets swastikas etc) then you can skip it, the conclusion is pretty clear. I wonder if people should first consider that as Freud said sometimes and asshole is just an asshole.

In our political life here in New Orleans the charges of racism are frequent, vicious and often calculated to protect a favored few disadvantaged millionaires from scrutiny. These are offensive to many people of goodwill and dishonor the memory of those who struggled and died for racial progress. Worst of all they divide a community that desperately needs to be united.

In many ways we New Olreanians are like the Greeks and the Turks. Our food is the same, our music is the same, we drink the same things, we go to the same parades. People from elsewhere see the similarities and wonder why we can't get along. We seem to see only the differences.

I'm pretty sure a lot of people won't agree with my perspective, but then I'm an asshole.


Anonymous said...

mominem, I appreciate your saying that we don't know, because we don't know. The problem comes in, it seems to me, when people think they do know the situation. Still, I think the question about bias (probably more fair a term than prejudice in the Gates-Crowley case) is whether things would've been the same if Gates were white. Here's what I think would've been different (but of course, I can't know):
1) The witness would have been less likely to have regarded their behavior as suspicious enough to report. As I've written, she did what we're told to do, but I think she was more likely to see two black men trying to shoulder-open the door as more suspicious than two white men.
2) Crowley would have been more likely to believe that it was his house if he were white.
3) Gates would have been less likely to have gotten upset and agitated the situation because he wouldn't have had as many unfair experiences to wear him down (and yes, I've had a few too like you describe, but it's different).
4) The cops would have interpreted his agitation as less severe if he'd been white. There's a ton of research on biased perceptions and "hostile attributions" that shows that even a relatively low-prejudiced person can interpret the behavior of people differently if they're black than white.

Regardless, here's hoping that some folks will question their interpretations and reactions just a little bit more. Nice post.

mominem said...

Idetifying bias in results on a social level and looking for solutions is a far different thing than projecting the presumption of bias into every situation.