Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gender & Gates’ arrest (by Suzie)

Tomorrow, Obama is scheduled to have a beer at the White House with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley. It strikes me as a quintessentially masculine gesture that would be hard to imagine if one of the three were female.

I'm not saying Obama shouldn't do this. But I want to tease out the role of masculinity in this "teachable moment."

Because men commit crimes disproportionately, many people practice gender profiling. In other words, they are more suspicious of men than women in regard to crime. If I’m walking at night, for example, I worry less if a woman is walking behind me than if a man is.

Thus, it’s not surprising that a woman called the police when she saw two men forcing their way into a home. The woman says she didn’t describe them as black. Although she has been described as white, her lawyer says she has “olive-colored skin and is of Portuguese descent." Apparently, this matters because people have suggested she's racist.

Gates doesn’t blame her for calling the police, however.
I would want the police to come. What I would not want is to be presumed to be guilty. That's what the deal was. It didn't matter how I was dressed. It didn't matter how I talked. It didn't matter how I comported myself. That man [Crowley] was convinced that I was guilty.
Perhaps Gates was suggesting that it doesn't matter how successful a black man becomes in America; he's still subject to racism. I hope he wasn’t suggesting that police should profile people based on class markers, such as how they dress and talk.

When a man of means faces discrimination, the insult to his manhood is greater. Thus, some articles on Gates’ arrest are written as if it’s worse that it happened to a well-to-do black man as opposed to a poor one. (The reverse seems to be true for white women, in which class privilege seems to mitigate sexism.)

In our society, when a man attacks another man, the victim is supposed to strike back in order to preserve his dignity as a man. Gates said he was treated badly and then arrested because of his race. Perhaps Crowley felt he was not getting the respect due a police officer, or that he was being maligned as a racist. I’m not saying that justified his arrest of Gates; I’m noting that hitting back is a time-honored part of masculinity.

Gates said he wasn’t causing a disturbance; Crowley said he was. When a woman yells, she may be seen as “hysterical” or low class. Depending on her color, she may be seen as trashy, too angry, hot-blooded, etc. But a man is standing his ground.

Crowley reported that Gates said, "I'll speak with your mama outside." Gates denies this, but if it’s true, it would be a sexist comment, part of the tradition in which men fight men over the bodies of women.

Gates is concerned with the way the criminal justice system treats men. “How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?" This quote is interesting in its conflation of race and class, but I understand: In poor neighborhoods, plenty of people (including whites) see the criminal justice system as their tormentor, not their protector. As an older sister used to chide me: "The system is not your friend." I've given lectures similar to this one to my nephews.

If there is to be a national dialogue on the criminal justice system, let’s examine the role that masculinity plays. And let us not forget how women fare.