“Sorry, race has nothing at all to do with this.”
I wanted to take a quick moment to view the arrest of tennis player James Blake through the lens of race in America. Or to be more precise, through the lens of race in America as white people experience it. The topic of race in America is always tagged with descriptors such as incendiary or explosive, but in fact much of our problems with racism stem from the subtle ways in which we unconsciously and unwittingly fold it into our daily lives. So it is actually somewhat rare that a news story holds up a mirror that so perfectly and clearly reflects white America’s constant dismissal of racism as a thing that always happens over there. NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton seems to have beaten those odds, however, and given us a rather perfect microcosm of how we whites experience our own racism.
For those who are not tennis fans, James Blake is a thirty-five year old retired tennis pro. An elite player, he had his own line of Fila clothing as well as endorsement contracts with Nike, Prince, and Wilson. This weekend he was in New York City to attend the US Open, both as a fan and as a corporate spokesperson. While waiting for a car to take him the the Open outside his Manhattan hotel, he was tackled, arrested, handcuffed and detained by five plain clothed police officers. Spokespeople for the NYCPD later told reporters that the officers were investigating an identity theft case in the vicinity and that they mistook Blake for one of the suspects. While being detained, Blake offered identification but was ignored. He was released with minor cuts and bruises after a retired detective recognized him and informed the officers holding him who Blake was.
At this point, it’s worth stopping to note two things: The first is that it’s impossible as a reader to know exactly what was going through those officers’ minds as they tackled and cuffed Blake. The second is that, regardless of what was going through their minds, it’s hard not to assume that racial bias did not play a rather important role. It’s pretty difficult for me to believe that I would have been gang tackled and detained without police attempting to verify my story and identification. After all, the spokespeople for the NYPD did not suggest that the man they were seeking was believed to be either armed or dangerous. So even in the very best case scenario, the NYPD was looking at a situation that very much appeared to be a racially motivated assault on an innocent civilian.
Which brings me to Commissioner Bratton, who discussed Blake’s arrest on CNN this morning:
New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton has ordered an internal affairs probe into the incident. But he flatly denied accusations that race played a role in targeting Blake.
“Sorry, race has nothing at all to do with this,” Bratton told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “If you look at the photograph of the suspect, it looks like the twin brother of Mr. Blake. So let’s put that nonsense to rest right now.”
When asked why Blake was tackled during a probe of a nonviolent crime, Bratton said the internal affairs investigation is in its early stages.
Bratton said he watched video of the incident and was concerned about what he called “the inappropriate amount of force in the arrest.”
The footage has already led to one of the officers’ being moved to desk duty, Bratton said.
Police have not publicized the surveillance video from the hotel.
I think it’s important to unpack what Bratton said — not because I wish to condemn him (though I would argue he certainly deserves our condemnation), but because as I said earlier I think he’s perfectly encapsulated white America’s response to racism in 2015.
I am going to take it as granted that Commissioner Bratton is not lying and that he honestly believes he is being upfront and truthful when he tells CNN that “race has nothing at all to do with this.” Despite the assumed sincerity, however, it’s fairly clear that what he says is utter tosh. In an investigation that he himself admits is just barely underway, he has already decided that Blake’s race was not a factor. For Bratton, the lack of any racial bias motivating those under his command is a given; the investigation is therefore an exercise in determining what nonracial factors might have been in play.
This seems an especially especially odd position since the part of the department’s narrative is that Blake apparently looked like one of the suspects. Which means that even if no malice was intended, race absolutely was a factor — in the same way that hats would have been a factor had the police been looking for a man in a bowler and Blake had coincidentally (and inexplicably) decided to don one this morning. This is not to say that Commissioner Bratton does not believe that racism exists in America; he surely does. He’s just incapable of viewing it as an issue that he himself might be responsible for identifying and combatting. Racism, I assume for Commissioner Bratton, is one of those things with which other cities’ police commissioners have problems.
This, I think, is white America’s view about race in a nutshell. Sure, it’s easy for us to cluck at the Michael Dunns of the world, or to acknowledge how awful that Paula Dean person is. But our shared condemnation for others comes with the tacit agreement that we never be put under the microscope ourselves. Indeed, I think I can predict with some confidence that no small number of comments under this very post will be dedicated to stating how other people certainly deserve scorn, but that the writers of said comments are above all of that.
My guess is that over the next few days, the white denizens of the intertubes will be eviscerating William Bratton for the combined crimes of being clueless about his own racism and not one of the white denizens of the intertubes. But really, we’re all William Bratton. And the longer it takes us to finally admit that, the longer it’s going to take for things to get better.