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Sunday, July 26, 2009

“Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane”: Barack Obama, Bob Dylan and the man the authorities came to blame

When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road

Just like the time before and the time before that.
In Paterson that’s just the way things go.
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street

less you wanna draw the heat.

President Obama called it a “teachable moment.” Noted African American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pointed to his arrest for disturbing the peace in his own home as an example of “what it’s like to be a black man in America.”

And while Gates’ indignation was intended to be self referential, President Obama’s equally indignant comment that the Cambridge police had ‘acted stupidly’ in their treatment of Gates may very well have provided the first glimpse into what it’s like to be a black president in America.

During the campaign, Obama went out of his way to avoid the issue of race. And to his credit, relegating race to the back burner allowed more pressing issues like heath care, the economy, and the war in Iraq to take precedent. In fact, it was only in the midst of the infamous Jeremiah Wright incident, when the issue of race threatened to boil over, that Obama was forced to chime in on the topic. By all accounts (including those of Professor Gates), Obama didn’t just tackle the issue of racism in American, he transcended it.

But the cool, ethereal detachment Obama displayed during the campaign was decidedly absent last week as the president allowed himself to be drawn in.

And while Obama appeared to have acted impetuously when he broke from his seemingly perpetual tranquil state, the truth is that racial profiling—what many have placed at the epicenter of the Gates’ controversy—is an issue to which the president has given considerable thought.

While in the Illinois legislature Obama was the chief sponsor of a bill, which eventually became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers stopped for traffic violations. The data collected is then analyzed with the intent of deterring racial profiling.

And while Obama’s authoring of the racial profiling bill may explain his ‘stupid’ response to the arrest of Professor Gates, it did little to transform the incident into the “teachable moment” the president had hoped it would become. Unless, of course, the lesson was how to exploit a tenuous situation for the political and professional gain… in which case President Obama and Professor Gates both passed with flying colors.

For Obama, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates was a striking example of racial discrimination that he had hoped he could point to from a distance without have to become embroiled in the politically decisive issue. Of course, no one expected Obama to actually show his true colors on the topic. Judging from the amount of language 'recalibration' Obama has done over the last week, that assessment extends to the president himself.

For Henry Louis Gates, the front porch skirmish, which would have said volumes about the status of race relations in this country without Gates having to ever even have said a word, has been reduced to little more than the impetus for his next project—a PBS documentary on, you guessed it… racial profiling. And so, in both instances, what could have been a real moment of clarity was instead sadly and selfishly squandered.

Of course, the exploitation of race for personal gain is not just limited to politicians and Ivy League professors. It turns out pop stars are prone to it, too.

Certainly, Bob Dylan fell prey to the polarizing issue of racial profiling in the fall of 1975 when he championed the cause of a middleweight boxer by the name of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The song, which maintained Carter had been wrongfully charged and sentenced on three counts of murder, played the race card in ways that would have made OJ’s defense team cringe.

And while many of Dylan’s claims, including the assertion that Carter could have at one time “been champion of the world” were clearly self-congratulatory exaggerations employed to bolster a case for injustice, in the end it hardly mattered.

The mere fact Dylan had put pen to paper in defense of the beleaguered boxer elevated Carter’s plight to mythical proportion. It did marvels for Dylan's career, too. The song would go on to become one of his most popular; Desire, the album on which it appeared, one of his biggest sellers.

The issue of race in America may very be the most morally debasing issue our country has had to confront over our 200-plus year history. And even though Obama and Gates missed an opportunity last week to educate and enlighten on that issue much in the same way Dylan missed his own ‘teachable moment’ 35 years ago, there’s no question we’ve come a long way when it comes to our attitude on race in America.

And while those in power may occasionally play loose and free with the facts to advance the side they’re on, it’s refreshing to see the side they're on is the right one…

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fools hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I would totally agree that Obama was 'exploiting' the incident. But you are astute to note that he did let his guard down in a way that was very telling. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

The arresting officer filed a false police report claiming the person who reported the incident claimed that she saw "two Black men". He lied. Why? Very "stupid" if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

I think Obama was dead on with the word "stupidly." There is ZERO reason to arrest a man on his own property. That race was the underlying reason is unknowable to anyone but office Crowley--cops are often dicks to pretty much every--but that doesn't change the reality: a police officer overstepped his authority and violated the rights of an individual. Gates was undoubtedly being an abusive jerk, but...that's HIS RIGHT AS AN AMERICAN. It doesn't speak well of him, any more than it does when considering HE assumed that Crowley was motivated by race. But that also does not change the basic fact: a police officer overstepped his authority and violated the rights of an individual.

Personally, I applaud the president for being so forthright, and again for trying to moderate an intelligent discussion after the fact with his beer bash.

In the end, what this illustrates more than anything is the out-of-control arrogance of so many cops in this country. Race, to me, is the secondary aspect of the incident.

As for Dylan's "Hurricane," it is often forgotten (much like it is with "Joey") that he was not reporting on an incident. He was, in fact, adapting a book to a song. While it may be accurate to suggest that Hurricane's story was overblown and self-deluded in parts...Dylan's song was utterly faithful to its source. Much like the songs about Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin(g), Dylan was following a folksingers tradition in elevating a "bad buy" to hero status.

If he was a commentator on the six of clock news, that would be a bad thing. He's not. He's a folksinger...