By Guy Aoki
Throughout his campaign to win the Democratic primary and then the White House, Barrack Obama rarely referred to himself as a black man. When he gave his victory speech in Iowa repeating, “This was the moment!..,” he never once spoke directly to the significant fact that Democrats in a state with a 91 percent white population had chosen a black man to be their leader. Even later when talking about how far the country had come with his election, he never spelled it out: For the first time in its 232 year history, White America voted for a black man to become President.
Obama simply let everyone else say it. The presumption is that his campaign knew anyone looking at him already knew he was black, so why remind them and make them think twice about voting for him? Why not instead focus on his ideas and let his charisma carry the day?
The only time Obama directly addressed race was when he had to—when Reverend Jeremiah Wright became an albatross around his neck he could no longer ignore. So he gave his famous speech about race acknowledging the conflicts between blacks and white yet at the same time trying to link them in their common struggle.
So it was surprising when, during his prime-time news conference meant to push his health reform bill, he took sides in a racial issue—the arrest of Harvard black history professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Although acknowledging he didn’t know all the facts, Obama nevertheless felt confident enough to say the Cambridge police acted “stupidly.”
He obviously felt the police’s practice of racial profiling that the black community knows all too well had just happened again.
Of course, the police labor unions cried foul, asking for an apology from the President. Blacks, however, welcomed the discussion about alleged racial profiling because it still continues despite the denial of authorities.
But unfortunately, Obama had good reason to avoid talking about racial issues during his campaigns because this incident has inflamed the sensitivities of everyone who’s heard it. A white friend in the weight room was furious after hearing tapes of Gates yelling “yo mama” insults at the white officer.
“So what?” I asked. Gates obviously suffered racial slights in the past. He’s a professor of black history. He’s aware of the unfair treatment of his people in this country. When it seems to happen again—and in his own home yet—why wouldn’t he be upset?
(What if police went to Don Nakanishi’s house and accused him of being sneaky? Wouldn’t that revive the “sneaky Jap” stereotype and re-stimulate him to the point of speaking out against it? Maybe in a loud, outraged voice that, like Gates’, made the neighbors take note? O.K., well, maybe not Don. But you get my point. Maybe it’d take authorities accusing an Asian American Stud¬ies professor of secretly helping an Asian country?)
Every community has its sore points and looking suspicious to police is a big one for African Americans.
My friend tried to interrupt me by pointing out that Gates didn’t own that home—it belonged to Harvard University. So what? The point is, he lived there, so he wasn’t breaking into his own home! At some point, when the officer saw Gates’ ID and realized that, he should’ve apologized and left. Instead, he used the vague weapon of “disorderly conduct” to arrest the guy as soon as he stepped outside of his door (experts noted it’s difficult to arrest someone for that offense in your own home; Gates told Boston’s ABC News affiliate WCUBtv the officer even thanked him for stepping to the porch so he could arrest him).
In other words, Sgt. Crowley overextended the use of his authority by making a tense but non-criminal situation worst by putting cuffs on Gates and sending him to prison for four hours.
Of course, conservative outlets like Fox News have field days with situations like this because it gives them another opportunity to throw darts at Obama, who because he’s a Democrat, automatically becomes fair game red meat. It also gives voice to the angry white man who feels threatened by the growing minority population.
The Los Angeles Times found that over the past six years, there’ve been more than 12,000 complaints about police practicing racial or sexual profiling. Yet none were determined to have any merit.
Give me a break.
Why is it not a surprise that the police would tell the public their actions were justified in any situation? How many times were innocent motorists killed because cops were in a high-speed pursuit (sometimes over something as minor as expired licenses) and the target crashed into another driver? Internal investigations would later determine the police acted within police guidelines. My rebuttal was, “And did the public approve those guidelines? Did we agree that the police have the right to chase suspects through streets and endanger the lives of innocent people? And if innocent people caught in the wrong place and the wrong time died, that was O.K. because it was all in the course of conducting police business?!”
Thankfully, LAPD revised their policy so that cops won’t get involved in such high-speed chases unless the offense is major. But think of all the innocents who died over the decades until that was modified.
In any case, can you imagine how many of those alleged 12,000 profiling incidents were against blacks? If none of them were ever validated, can you imagine the black community’s anger and frustration against the police? Why do you think that during the O.J. Simpson trial, while 80 percent of whites thought he was guilty, 80 percent of blacks felt he was innocent? They don’t trust the police.
As I’ve said before, White America complains about minorities talking about discrimination because they believe, for the most part, it’s ended. As if they’d be the primary recipients of it and would know! And when people of color raise examples to prove otherwise, whites are usually the loudest in shouting them down insisting they’re wrong. Why? Because they’re afraid of being blamed not just for those recent examples but for everything in the past—slavery, denial of education, the right to vote, the attacks on civil rights marchers, and chance for equal opportunity.
(As a matter of fact, my weight room friend likes to remind me that blacks in Africa gave up their own people to slave traders—as if to say African Americans shouldn’t complain about slavery! Right. The white slaver owners had nothing to do with that demand for slaves. I know, the white defense can be scary sometimes).
Yet unless Whites—those in the majority culture which still controls the way this country works—listen and empathize with the suffering of minorities, we’ll never come together as a country because they’ll be no healing and no forgiveness. And true incidents of discrimination will continue because whites will continue to hold their hands to their ears and say “la-la-la!”
With the country as polarized as ever thanks to the divisive efforts of the Republicans and the “holier than thou-until I get caught cheating on my wife” religious right, it’ll be a long time before more level-headed discussions can begin and continue without both sides walking out of the room in a huff. But until such dialogue happens, there won’t be any peace on either side of the battle.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.