The Forgotten Lessons of the Skip Gates Arrest

Question: Is the Skip Gates arrest an example of the work that still needs to be done?

Jay Smooth: I think the Skip Gates scandal was a great example of how far we are from being post-racial, obviously, and I don't think being post-racial is a worthy ideal. I think being colorblind or being post-racial--to me that's kind of like when people talk about secondary virginity: it's something that could never exist and wouldn't be worth having if we were able to get it. I think we should be fully comfortable with seeing someone who is of a different ethnicity and recognizing that they are.

The problem comes from when we make irrational assumptions after we notice that.  You know what I’m saying? If you forget race and look at gender…I don't think most women want people to look at them and not notice whether they're a man or a woman. It's just; do you make assumptions about who they are and what they're capable of after you notice they're a woman? You know, I think our culture and ethnicity—for most of us—is a big part of who we are, and we take pride in it. I hope that we're able to become more racial, rather than becoming post-racial, and be able to recognize our differences in a rational way and relish them and appreciate them and be able to talk about them frankly instead of hoping to never notice our differences or discuss them away. I mean, to me, that's being afraid of something that's not being comfortable with it. 

But, I think the Skip Gates scandal is certainly a reminder that there's a lot of work to do—both in our perceptions and in how our institutions function, and I think that aspect is what unfortunately was lost in how the Gates scandal played out. In the way that Obama has addressed race—which I think he's addressed it extremely well-- the one flaw that I felt was there is there's so much of an emphasis on conversation, and on each of us acknowledging and honoring the other person's feelings and perspectives and recognizing where those feelings come from, that we've lost track of how racism and injustice and inequity are also manifest in ways beyond personal feeling and personal expression and thoughts.

There's also institutional inequity, institutional racism, and systemic inequity. And those are things that can't be fixed by conversation and sharing each other's thoughts and understanding. And I think what you saw in the Skip Gates scandal…Skip Gates he made errors in the way that he spoke; Obama made an error in the way that he spoke; but that Officer Crowley, he didn't make an error in how he spoke, he abused his power to arrest somebody, and he was backed up by the institution that he represents. You know, that is a very widespread problem of police abusing their power that is not something you can fix by having a conversation over a beer. There need to be changes in how we train police officers. There need to be changes in the policies that we enforce, you know, so that–-I mean people spoke about Officer Crowley as if he was a rouge or a bad apple, but it seems clear to me that he wasn't a rogue. He was someone who was provided training on these issues, and was trained in such a way that he thought it was okay for him to arrest somebody because he didn't like their attitude –inside their own home. And you saw his institution back him up after he did that.

So, I think he wasn't being a bad apple.  He was doing what he was trained to do.

And we need to enact change on an institutional level to stop that from happening again. Because it happens to thousands of people who don't have the connections Officer Gates has, and the consequences are not going to be a beer with the President, you know, it's going to—when it escalates—it's going to escalate to a Taser, or a night stick, or something worse than that. And I think that's something I wish had been focused on more. I mean, it's great for us to encourage conversation, but I wish that President Obama had also taken some time to note that there are bigger things than conversation that need to happen with this issue.


Recorded on August 4, 2009

Jay Smooth reflects on the institutional factors involved in the professor’s apprehension.

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