Right Wing Media, Strategists Seize Upon Gates Arrest and Controversy

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.

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

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
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,
, "let's
face it, President Obama's black, and I think he's got a chip on his

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," have
lost 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
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
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.

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