A Response to Jeremy Young

by zunguzungu

Jeremy Young, whose work I respect and who I hereby invite to have a beer with me, disagreed so vehemently with my last post that he couldn’t fit it into a comment box over at Cliopatria, where I cross posted the piece. I couldn’t fit my response into his comment box, either, so I’ve posted it here. When we have that beer (and mine will be a homebrew), hopefully Jeremy and I will come together over shared frustration with comment box sizes.

Hmmm. The main point in my post was the one signaled by my title, the fact that the white house “beer summit” is a narrative which turns America into a boys club. I think it’s striking how gendered the language has become, and I was interested in that for a particular reason, albeit a personal one which I didn’t share: I’m revising an article on how the South African writer Peter Abraham uses male solidarity as a way of imagining an end to racism, thus producing a raceless universe defined by exclusion of female subjectivity. I’m telling you that because I think the brevity of my post was a big part of what allowed you to read so much into it. But be that as it may, the point I was trying to make was a pretty humble one: that Lucia Whalen was part of the situation, and should still be part of the discussion. I think she was excluded because the very masculine terms of the narrative – man defending his castle from invaders, man frightened of losing face, and just a bunch of bro’s having a brew – don’t allow much room for her. I think that’s interesting and worth noting; our discussions of race so often descend into polemics that we lose all sight of nuance, and gender is often one of the quickest nuances to be jettisoned.

Where I went wrong, I now see, was in taking sides; if what I was trying to establish was simply the interesting way she’s disappeared from the narrative, I shouldn’t have issued forth the blanket denunciations of Gates, Obama, and Crowley and an unqualified praise of her own actions that you, with some justification, took issue. After I wrote the post, it did occur to me that Gates’ own conduct may be 100% above reproach if Crowley’s report is a 100% fabrication, something I imagine is not at all unlikely. So that’s what I wish I hadn’t done: I shouldn’t have joined the bombast and pretended I know what I don’t actually know.

If I had tried to write a longer more substantive post on Whalen’s conduct, here’s what I might have said. I think you downplay the importance of two things in her 911 call, which I only alluded to: the fact that she suggests to the 911 operator that the men breaking in might actually live there (in fact, she calls them “gentlemen”) and the fact that she refuses to take the bait offered to her by the operator to identify the two men’s race suggests that she has some sense of the stakes involved, that she took some care with what she said and did. Perhaps not enough.

(Now, a quick parenthetical: I didn’t really intend to write that kind of post, and I wish I had been more careful not to. It was partially because the first post that I wrote on the issue referred to Lucia Whalen’s “bizarrely misguided” choice to call the police in the first place that caused me to write the second one: a feeling of having jumped to conclusions about her too quickly and a sense that when I spewed forth 2000 words on the subject, all I had done was join the posturing. That’s why instead of writing something equally large on Thursday, I just dashed off 200 words. Because almost everyone commenting on the entire affair – including me – has done to its participants what you’ve just done to me: presume to know why we do the things we do.)

So my point regarding Whalen would be a simple one: the fact that she took the steps that she did indicates that she was at least partially aware of the context, at least partially aware of the dangers of calling the police, and that she tried to act with that in mind. Again, maybe not enough. But what would be? By your standard, nothing. Which is the problem: your standard is no standard at all. You say that she’s “a representative of a white American culture that is sown through with racism,” and conclude on that basis that her actions were at least partially the result of that racism. And by that standard, if a black person appears to be comitting a crime, there is no situation where a non-black person can call the police and not be guilty of racism. This may even be true. But if everyone is racist – because we are all “sown through with racism” – then the thing to do is to act with that in mind, to think about the consequences of one’s unconscious assumptions and those of others. As you yourself pointed out, the problem is when people think that racism doesn’t exist. But I don’t think Lucia Whalen acted as if racism didn’t exist. To the contrary, when I read the transcript, it seems to me like Whalen regrets having made the call almost immediately. And in that vein, I don’t think it’s insignificant that when the 911 operator twice prompts her to identify the ethnicity of the potential burglars, she refuses to do so. That admission indicates an awareness of what is stake in calling the police. And what else can one ask of someone in her position?

Which is why all this is beside the point. I’m not sure that Lucia Whalen is without blemish on her soul – and while I’m pretty sure I’m not Bull Connor, I’m well aware of having committed a variety of thoughtcrimes in my time – but you can’t be sure either. Which is why this kind of argument gets us nowhere: what we should be talking about here are not our inner essences but our actions. In this sense we are in agreement. But pretending we know why people do the things they do (by assuming a kind of blanket guilt, for example) takes us even farther away from the discussion we do need to have, the discussion which, because it presumes the problem of race, allows us to think about the steps we take to mitigate it. An example of that discussion would be what Tenured Radical wrote at her blog or what Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing at his. That discussion would be about where and when and how calling the police might actually improve a situation rather than introduce such an erratic unpredictable dangerous element into it as to not be worth the risk. I don’t pretend to have the answer to that. But even though, with 20-20 hindsight, it is clear that Lucia Whalen would have been better not to have even picked up the phone, she clearly did think about the consequences her actions were having, and any discussion we have about her has to be more subtle than simply America is racist, therefore she is racist.

One last note: if this episode has shown nothing else, it’s that there are actually an uncomfortably large number of Bull Connors out there, and every one of them has internet access.