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Understanding Dr. Henry Gates and Sgt. Crowley

July 27, 2009 by Obama No Comments

The flap over the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts uniquely provides much more light than heat.  A neighbor of Dr. Gates saw two men attempting to force open the front door of his house, she called 911 and reported it, and the police understood it to be a “burglary of dwelling in progress.”  When this kind of call comes, police in the area drop most of their other duties and rush to the scene in the hopes of protecting citizens, and catching bad guys.  They assume the dwelling is occupied and the residents may be in danger.  Dispatch sent out the alert, and police officers went to the home in question.

Some hysterical people immediately spread the lie that the neighbor said two black men were trying to break into the home.  She said no such thing.  Then those who see and interpret every human encounter through the lens of differences in color (including Dr. Gates) tried to present the whole encounter as racist.  Dr. Gates immediately referred to the event as racial profiling even though the police had no clue the men attempting to enter the home were black.  Apparently he judges everyone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.  First assumption: white police have malign motives regarding black people.

Following these events, President Obama during a previously scheduled ‘press conference’  was asked about the event, and his answer was organized in parts, was nuanced, and was exactly what he wanted to say – including his prepared statement about the Cambridge police acting “stupidly.”  We know this, because Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted that President Obama was prepped with a response to this issue prior to his prime time ‘press conference.’  So the President wasn’t speaking off the cuff, didn’t make a mistake, didn’t miscalibrate; he just revealed his heart.  First assumption:  white police have malign motives regarding black people.

We know that immediately Dr. Gates hired an attorney who framed the issue as racial profiling, and began threatening lawsuits against the City of Cambridge.

Mr. Obama later stuck by his remarks and was surprised that anyone would question him on the issue.  Later still, he said this wasn’t about him (which it clearly was) but he wanted this to be a teachable moment for America.  Just what we are to learn from this situation seems already clear to me: black people are supposed to be treated differently than white people.  So the President goes to the media again and mentions that he has invited both Dr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley to have a beer in the White House so they can talk this over.  Just the thing: a beer summit.

He gave his non-apology apology saying, “I want to make clear that in my choice of words I gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department, or Sgt. Crowley specifically; and I could have calibrated those words differently.”  So he’s sorry you got the impression that by calling what these officers did was “acting stupidly”  that you might think that the President was maligning them.  How “stupid” of us to think that when the President called the police “stupid” we thought that his impression was that they were actually “stupid.”  I think he just called us stupid too.

A Teachable Public Moment

In any event, I have an explanation for why this whole thing happened, and I offer it in the spirit of providing a teachable public moment.  Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a deconstructionist literary critic.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Dr. Henry Louis Gatesthis means that nothing anyone has ever written or said means anything; you learn nothing from the “text,” what is actually written or said.  The “text” is nothing, the context is everything.  So what is said must be “deconstructed” in order to figure out what it says that it doesn’t actually say.  (This carries over into the mind of the person writing or speaking the text – they don’t have any clue what they are writing or saying either!  It takes a “literary critic” to truly understand.  So, you don’t know anything about yourself either – just ask a Harvard Professor.)

Dr. Gates’ most important book states that he wants to,

“confound a Eurocentric bias,” by “explor(ing) the black vernacular.  To do so, I have turned to two trickster figures, Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey, in whose myths are registered certain principles of both formal language use and its interpretation.  Theirs is a meta-discourse, a discourse about itself.  These admittedly complex matters are addressed, in the black tradition, in the vernacular, far away from the eyes and ears of outsiders…I have turned to two trickster figures, Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey, in whose myths are registered certain principles of both formal language use and its interpretation.”

(This and all quotes below are from the book or the Incident Report.  I am not making this up.)

Dr. Gates immersed in this deconstructionist way of thinking has spent a good deal of his professional career trying to create a ‘black canon.’  His monumental book is titled “The Signifying Monkey,” (Oxford University Press, December 1989).  So I think the problem arose when Dr. Gates struggled to ascertain what the police officer was saying, because the “text” is nothing.  In order to appropriately interact with the officers, Dr. Gates had to get at the “context.”  I will help translate what happened from the actual “Incident Report” you can read here.

So when Sargent Crowley asked for his ID; Dr. Gates is thinking,

“Ours is an extraordinarily self-reflexive tradition, a tradition exceptionally conscious of its history and the simultaneity of its canonical texts, which tend to be taken as verbal models of the Afro-American social condition to be revived.”

Far away from the eyes and ears of outsiders, Dr. Gates self reflexes, “No I will not, this is what happens to black men in America!”

Sgt. James CrowleyOfficer Crowley not understanding an extraordinarily self-reflexive tradition, and being a cracker cop understood Dr. Gates to say, “No I will not, this is what happens to black men in America!”  So he requested ID again.

Dr. Gates interpreted this as a continued insulting demand and understood that a white supremacist police officer attempting to protect Dr. Gates and his home is only a text, but the context is a racist effort to put down an uppity black man.  He remembers,

“Free of the white person’s gaze, black people created their own unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms bore to white forms.”

Dr. Gates is thinking: that honky cop doesn’t understand what I’m saying – I will relish this double play!

Officer Crowley being a honky and unfamiliar with history and the simultaneity of its canonical texts, understood Dr. Gates to say that Crowley was a white racist who didn’t understand the black experience.

Gates is thinking: this guy is one of the two tricksters, probably the Signifying Monkey.  He’s relying on certain myths.  This is a meta-discourse, a discourse about itself, and I’m not taking it anymore!  So he says, “You don’t know who you’re messing with!”

Officer Crowley wasn’t educated about meta-discourses about themselves, so he understood Dr. Gates to say, “You don’t know who you’re messing with!”

Things were escalating quickly, so Officer Crowley invited Dr. Gates outside.  By now he knew that Dr. Gates had a Harvard University ID card, but didn’t know if Dr. Gates was under duress; acting this way because another family member was being held hostage so he wanted to get Dr. Gates to safety.

Dr. Gates immersed in meta-discourses understood right away that

“tropological revision,” (is) “the manner in which a specific trope is repeated, with differences, between two or more texts.”

So he said, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!”

Officer Crowley didn’t think his mother was at the crime scene, but not being familiar with Esu-Elegbara understood Dr. Gates to say, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!”

Dr. Gates continued to hurl epithets at the honky cop, so finally Officer Crowley handcuffed and arrested the tenured Harvard Professor for disturbing the peace.

Dr. Gates consulted the trickster Esu-Elegbara and understood that the racist white cop is arresting another black man without cause.

Officer Crowley understood that Dr. Gates was disturbing the peace.

Deconstructionist literary theory explains it all, but it does make you wonder who really is the trickster.