What do Sonia Sotomayor & Henry Louis Gates Have in Common?

21 July 2009

They both give us object lessons in white privilege.

Sotomayor is portrayed by some on the right as being a racist.  Setting aside that most social scientists argue that it’s impossible for members of minority groups to be racist, what their criticisms demonstrate is the privileged perch of the white male.

You see, because the white male perspective in our society is the “default” perspective, these leges assume that there is no bias in their perspective.  Because most of their constituents and colleagues share that perspective, it again seems to be the norm.  So along comes someone with a different experience and a different perspective, and they take it as a threat and a sign that such a person must be wrong.

The truth is that their experience as white men has shaped every one of their judgments.  Not that they’ve always been wrong, but they cannot take the high and mighty position that they are objective and neutral.  It’s just that because they make up the “norm” everything not in their grasp is “deviant.”

Now with Gates, he’s seen apparently breaking into his own home, and he’s arrested for essentially being beligerent as a result of being confronted in his own home.  Although we can’t know whether Gates’ story that he showed his ID but wasn’t believed, or the cops’ that he refused to show his ID is true, to me the bigger issue is, what if he’d been white?

Here again, the answer lies in white privilege, more than racial profiling.  Here’s why:

Frankly, anyone trying to shoulder a door in on a house could look suspicious.  But if Gates and the cab driver had been white, the witness who called the cops more likely would have assumed they lived there and ignored it.  In many cases, the responsible thing to do is to report suspicious behavior; problem is, this behavior looked more suspicious because the men involved were black.

So I don’t blame someone for calling the cops–IF they would have called on two white guys doing the same thing.  We can’t know for sure, but that’s the psychic litmus test we should perform in order to know whether our actions are discriminatory.

It goes further.  We have MANY examples of research showing that the same behavior is interpreted differently by people of different races, and Gates’ “disorderly” conduct at his home may well not have been taken as such if he were white.  But we also have cases from the news–Rodney King presumed to be high on PCP, Amadou Diallo presumed to be wielding a gun and not a wallet, Abner Louima presumed to be a real threat to officers’ safety–that show us that behavior is interpreted differently depending upon our stereotypes of the actor.

It’s time that we acknowledged that different people have different sets of rules.  E and I were in the airport recently when a white British guy slept through his plane’s boarding and became irate.  After getting no satisfaction with his demands that he be let on the plane (the door had closed), he repeatedly yelled that there would be “trouble” if he wasn’t let on or his bags let off.  We discussed how different his treatment would have been if he’d been black or, worse in this context, Middle Eastern.  To threaten “trouble” in an airport, one would think, would get you arrested immediately, but he was politely escorted out.

And most of the time, if cops saw me trying to climb in the window of my house or to slim-jim open my car door, they’d assume I belonged and leave me alone.  Even if they did ask for my ID, it’d be the first time for me, so I wouldn’t mind passing it over, unlike my black friends and students who are routinely IDd, followed, and suspected, to the point that they’re sick of playing that game.

And that’s why white privilege plays a more powerful role in our daily lives than most people are willing to acknowledge.