The XX Factor

Not the Time to Play Devil’s Advocate

Just as upsetting to me as the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest , Emily, is the way that so many people have been responding, including in our own comments section . There’s this reflexive defense mechanism that so often kicks in with white people (of which I am one) in situations like these; an urge to stand up for the white person accused of discrimination because hey, I’m white, and I’m not racist . I’ll admit, I feel that pull too at times-I cringe at people who fling around groundless accusations of racism (or, in some of my family members’ cases, anti-Semitism), just as I do at knee-jerk liberals, or anyone else whose overly-simplified attacks risk trivializing complex issues.

But this is not a case where people should get all smug about being “brave” and “honest” enough to question whether race was a factor; to suggest that maybe it was Gates who was out of line, not the cop. In all the steps of this story-the neighbor who called the cops, the way the officer spoke to Gates, the fact that the kerfuffle between them, no matter how much it was instigated by Gates, led to an actual arrest-it is just so hard to imagine that not one of them was influenced by Gates (and his driver) being black.

Blogger Kate Harding has a thorough explanation of why declarations that race isn’t a part of this arrest are coming from a position of white privilege. And to “people are trying to be all devil’s advocatey about it and suggest that Gates bears responsibility for making matters worse,” she offers this: “I’m sorry, who wouldn’t be a belligerent prick after getting off a long flight, coming home to a jammed door, then finding a cop in your living room accusing you of trying to steal your own shit? I sure would.” Ditto that.

P Starling , one of our favorite Double X commenters, takes the argument further, explaining from her experience on the police force that even if Gates were being a belligerent prick, that’s still not enough reason to arrest him:

[T]here is something here that no one has pointed out, probably since civilians usually don’t realize it: the cops are soooooo used to that crap. If they arrested and processed everyone who gives them a hard time in a standard day, the streets would empty. In most states, in fact, disorderly conduct (which is indeed a crime) is not actually punishable by time in jail. It’s a citation-level offense, along the same general line as letting your dog run around off leash.

In the seven years I worked for the police, there were many times when my coworkers would have loved to arrest someone on the “being a general asshole” clause. They never did. Not once. Because it would have been an abuse of power.

Photograph of Henry Louis Gates by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images.