Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Gates-Gate Update

I've been astoundingly remiss in blogging these days and again the only excuse I can offer is that I've been frantically working towards the completion of my dissertation. What about the other FWF contributors, you say? I'm sure they're also equally busy with work and/or summer vacations. Rest assured, come Fall I'll be back in the full swing of things and (hopefully) blogging up a storm.

That said, as a sort of peace offering for my absence, here's a little update on racial politics in America vis-a-vis Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest, or, as my parents and I like to call it, "Gates-Gate."

You've all probably heard--billions and billions of times on every form of media imaginable--about how President Obama referred to the police officer's decision to arrest Gates as "stupid"...and boy is he regretting his words. The President's choice of words has, somewhat inexplicably, become the hot topic this past week, prompting President Obama to offer an apology and invite the two men over for a beer, in a time-honored tradition of male bonding.

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Of course, putting aside for the moment that the President certainly has better things to do right now, a significant player in all this has been completely left out. Linda Whalen, the woman who called 911 and started the whole chain of events leading to Gates' arrest, has been seriously maligned by the media. After her 911 call was released, it became clear that Whalen never mentioned the race of the alleged burglars in her call nor is she the "privileged racist white neighbor" many bloggers made her out to be:
Tapes of the call released earlier this week revealed that Whalen, a first-generation Portuguese-American who doesn't live in the area, did not mention race. When pressed by a dispatcher on whether the men were white, black or Hispanic, she said one of them might have been Hispanic.

"Now that the tapes are out, I hope people can see that I tried to be careful and honest with my words," Whalen said. "It never occurred to me that the way I reported what I saw be analyzed by an entire nation."

Cambridge police Commissioner Robert Haas acknowledged that the police report contains a reference to race, but said the report is merely a summary of events. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, has said his information on the race of the suspects came during a brief encounter with Whalen outside Gates' house; she contradicted that Wednesday, saying she made no such description.

Has Whalen received an apology for her vilification by the media or been asked over to the White House for a beer? What do you think?

Update (Aug. 3): I just found out (thanks Lauren for the heads up) that Gates' did thank Whalen for her call to the police, offering her flowers in a "gesture of gratitude."

On another racist-icing-on-a-racist-cake note, a Boston PD officer sent a vehemently racist email in response to an article by a Boston Globe reporter calling Henry Louis Gates Jr. a "banana-eating jungle monkey" (several times) and insisting that the female author of the article was such a "fool" that she is only good for serving him his "coffee and donuts on a Sunday morning." You can read the full email here. While the officer in question has been suspended pending a hearing, some are arguing that his email falls under the auspices of free speech.

What do you think? Where does free speech end and hate speech begin?


Dr. Jay SW said...

Free speech, in the American context, refers to the government being restricted from passing laws forbidding people from voicing their views. It doesn't mean people can't be suspended from their jobs for saying things that indicates biases that could prevent them from executing their duties properly (i.e. without acting based on prejudices toward the people they're supposed to be serving) or, in the case of police or military personnel, that disgraces the uniform. Since this particular cop's words clearly do both, and he hasn't been arrested or denied rights because of what he said, I don't think it's a matter of free speech at all, just as it wouldn't be if a grade school teacher got fired for writing a letter to the editor about how hot the little girls in his class are, or if the president of the United States told blatant lies to get the country into a war...oh, wait a second, apparently that last one's okay....

Speaking of free speech, and since I'm already in full rant mode and can't stop, it also doesn't mean, contrary to the way the term is generally used in on-line forums, that you can't criticize what somebody says (typical internet exchange about free speech: person 1: [bigoted remark], person 2: "that's racist/sexist/homophobic bullshit," person 3: "hey, this is America and we got somethin' called the first amendment that says you can't criticize people for what they say!" person 2: [thinking about pointing out that that's the complete opposite of what the First Amendment says, but deciding not to bother and seeing if anybody posted anything funny on Facebook, instead]. And this, of course, is what Sarah Palin did in invoking the First Amendment to criticize the media for criticizing her--even though the amendment was written, and made first, specifically because you can't hope to have a functioning democracy if people can't say what they want about those in positions of power....

Thus, while I defend the right of both that racist cop and Sarah Palin to say whatever they want, I also defend the right of anybody to fire either of them for being too stupid to have a job....

Aviva DV said...

Well said, Jay. I was thinking something along those lines, but hadn't figured out how to articulate it. I completely agree. Plus, this:
Thus, while I defend the right of both that racist cop and Sarah Palin to say whatever they want, I also defend the right of anybody to fire either of them for being too stupid to have a job....
...just cracked me up!

Aviva DV said...

BTW: Liza Gates, Gates' daughter, wrote an excellent piece a few days ago over at The Daily Beast about her impressions of the Gates-Gate "Beer Summit."