The controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and President Obama’s remark that the police "acted stupidly" has taken up a lot of newspaper and broadcast space in the past week, and brought some attention to the problem of racial profiling and indeed the problems of even having a public discussion of race issues in the United States.
But the fact that President Obama had to backtrack from his remarks says more about certain institutional aspects of racism in the United States than it does about individual attitudes among the electorate or among police officers. That is what is generally missing from the discussion that takes place in the major media.
It is well known that no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964. Indeed, that is the main reason why President Obama’s race was not so much of a handicap in the last election: most people who would not vote for an African-American would not vote for a Democrat in any case. This partisan divide over race issues goes back to Richard Nixon and the Republican party’s "Southern Strategy," which – using coded racial appeals and other methods — helped keep the White House in Republican hands for 32 of the ensuing 44 years.
All this is significant because, although individual attitudes obviously matter and are influenced by deep historical factors such as slavery and segregation, the persistence of such prejudices over time can be substantially strengthened by certain political institutions and strategies. As the Gates case illustrates, in today’s context this means the Republican party and the right-wing media – which overlap considerably.
Gates, a well-known author, scholar, and professor at Harvard University, was arrested by Cambridge police officer James Crowley for "disorderly conduct" on July 16. Crowley had responded to a 911 call from a neighbor who reported that two men were possibly breaking in to a house. It turned out that Gates was pushing open a jammed door to his own house, assisted by a driver who had dropped him off. After Obama criticized the police actions, the right went into attack mode.
Glenn Beck, a popular Fox News commentator, said that Obama "had exposed himself …as a guy who has a deep seated hatred for white people…"
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who reaches a reported 20 million people, said, "let’s face it, President Obama’s black, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder."
Talk radio has an enormous audience in the United States, with a reported audience of 50 million people each week; at least three-quarters of the programming is conservative.
U.S. Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, (R-Mich.) is preparing to introduce a bill calling on President Obama to formally apologize to the Cambridge Police.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed an online petition asking whether "it’s appropriate for our nation’s Commander in Chief to stand before a national audience and criticize the men and women in law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day…"
The Republican party is obviously in disarray as it faces the threat of becoming a permanent minority party. Its hold on power prior to 2008 was based on a fake "populist" appeal to white working class voters – the biggest block of swing voters in most presidential elections during the last four decades. But issues such as gay marriage, guns, abortion, and whether "liberal elites" shared "our values," havelost resonance since the economy collapsed.
Hence the right’s rapid and persistent response to Obama’s remarks, and its efforts to consolidate their base around a race issue. They don’t have much else to run with right now.
Obama came under fire for saying that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates. For his part, President Obama has undoubtedly had experiences similar to those of Gates and has talked about his past difficulties, for example, in hailing a cab. As Stanley Fish pointed out, he has now also had the experience of being "President While Black."
But Obama was being generous to Crowley; a better description would have been "acted maliciously." Even if we accept Crowley’s own police report as a completely accurate version of events, there was no excuse for putting Professor Gates in handcuffs and dragging him down to the police station. (Gates gave a more credible account of what happened that contradicts Crowley on several key points; Crowley’s account is accepted here only for the sake of argument).
According to the police report, at the time of the arrest Gates had been positively identified as the owner of the home. There is no allegation that he had threatened or was threatening Crowley or anyone else. The "disorderly conduct" charge was, according to the police report, based on Gates allegedly yelling at the police officer from in front of his house.
Police sometimes abuse their authority, and this is a prime example. There is probably not one chance in a thousand that a Cambridge jury would have convicted Gates on these or any other criminal charges. But Crowley knew that the case would never go to trial. He may have arrested Gates out of spite and to demonstrate his authority; or he may have done it to protect himself from any complaint that might have been lodged against his own behavior prior to the arrest. As anyone who is familiar with police practices in the United States knows, it is common for police to arrest the victim when they commit an abuse. For example, when police beat people they sometimes charge them with assault so that they can drop the charges in exchange for the victim agreeing not to file a complaint. This is the most generous interpretation that one can give to Crowley’s decision to arrest Gates. But either way, the arrest itself was unethical, unprofessional, and an outrage.
Of course the issue of police abusing their authority is not the same as racial profiling. But there is enough overlap – people who don’t think racial profiling is a problem are also more likely to back the police, especially against an African-American man who is claiming that the police acted in a racist manner. So the Republicans grabbed an opportunity to rally their base, and the right-wing media sprung into action.
The power of right wing media extends far beyond its base because it also influences the mainstream or "liberal" media. CNN and other cable networks compete for Fox viewers by moving rightwards. The network news and Sunday talk shows are much more willing to invite guests from the far right than from even the moderate left or left-of-center. This is also true for National Public Radio and Public TV, although they tend to be more liberal on cultural issues. All of this moves the guests, journalists, and commentators themselves, who want to make sure that they always remain acceptable to the mainstream. There is no comparable countervailing force from the left of center to match the influence of the right. Until that balance changes, the Republican right — even the troglodyte part of its base that worships Rush Limbaugh — will continue to have influence beyond their numbers on national political issues.