Race Matters; or, the Judge, the Professor, and the Doctor

These are interesting times.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been taken to task for stating, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  Her word choice is poor, but her point is that her ethnicity and gender carry with them a wealth of experience simply unavailable to a white man.

Can race, gender, or ethnicity be instructive?  Well, let’s examine the evidence.

In a recent moment of almost perfect poetic symbolism, the fine officers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, racially profiled one of the finest minds in Af-Am scholarship, a man who has been instrumental in creating a space in which the uniqueness of black experiences and voices is honored.  Well, now he sure as hell has had an edifying experience as a black American male that is not available to the white population.  Having been an academic long enough to know how their minds work, one of my first thoughts upon reading of Gates’s arrest was, “Wow.  Think of the article he’ll write after this one.”

Don’t get me wrong – I think the man is a genius regardless of race. But, his experiences as an African-American have shaped him into the type of scholar he is.  And, I’d be shocked if this latest experience doesn’t further shape his academic work.

And then we have Regina Benjamin, the nominee for Surgeon General, who is being criticized as too fat for the job.  Now, setting aside my immediate reaction of “Are you fucking kidding me?” for a moment, I do see the point that we need role models for good health.  However, a couple of photos of a plus-sized woman do not by any stretch of the imagination demonstrate that she is not a good doctor or role model.  Show me a grocery receipt with $78 of Twinkees on it and then we can talk about poor health choices.  For all I know Dr. Benjamin eats well and exercises regularly and would weigh a helluvalot more if she didn’t.  Last I checked, people come with different body types.

Oh-ho-ho-ho, isn’t it fun to characterize black women as lazy, stupid slobs who can’t be bothered to walk their empty tub of KFC X-tra Crispy to the trash can?  It’s uncool to call black women “Welfare Queens” nowadays, but calling them too fat and unhealthy to be good doctors is every bit as much about race and gender.

I don’t know Thing One about how it feels to be discriminated against for being fat, female, and black, but Regina Benjamin sure does.  I suspect that experience will serve her well as she tries to educate Americans on their health choices.

Does race, gender, and ethnicity qualify someone for a job?  Of course not.  Does being black or Latina in American make a person necessarily wiser or smarter than someone who is white and male?  Not last I checked?  Does it provide a library of experience from which to draw?  Absolutely.  To pretend otherwise, to try to simply ignore racial and gender identity, is to attempt to marginalize minorities by erasing the very bodies on which American society has been writing far more negative stereotypes for centuries.

31 responses to “Race Matters; or, the Judge, the Professor, and the Doctor

  1. C. Everett Koop was pretty damn big. Never heard anyone say he was too fat for the job!

  2. “Minorities” have been told for a long time that there are certain things we are too biased to get because of our ethnicity. It’s funny how badly some people have reacted to the flip side of that argument.

  3. Amen sister. Amen.

  4. Did you read Gates’ interview on The Root? Made me queasy. “I’m going to use my considerable intellectual resources…etc.” And the now-famous “I’ll meet YOUR MAMA out on the porch!”. I’ve always been a fan, but it’s too bad he wasn’t able to keep his cool. No one with any kind of wisdom or tolerance should begin shouting racism at the first request to show ID. With a little bit of class and patience, he wouldn’t have had his next book deal- oops, I mean, his horrific profiling experience.

    I don’t see in the article where people are “characterizing black women as lazy, stupid slobs…” etc, but maybe you can point that part out. I think there’s a logical connection between a Dr. Benjamin’s qualifications for the job and her ability to speak authoritatively on heath issues. It wouldn’t matter if she were nominated for, say, Secretary of State, or Attorney General, but it does matter if she plans on giving healthy living advice to millions of obese Americans. Just like it would matter if she were appointed to the Supreme Court with major violations on her criminal record.

    With this kind of logic, we run the risk of qualifying a person just because of their race, overlooking the obvious disqualifications, which is, I think we’d agree, just as much of an insult to diversity.

  5. I wasn’t on that porch in Cambridge, but as more is revealed, I can’t help but agree with Evenshine regarding Dr. Gates. It is sounding as if once the police tried to verify what was happening that he, perhaps, lost his cool. Certainly it would be understandable that he might do that, based on the history in this country. But I’m beginning to wonder how much responsibility he bears in this situation. And sadly, I’m disappointed in Pres. Obama for speaking off-the-cuff and further inflaming the entire issue.

    I don’t know anything about the surgeon general situation. But I have to agree that the obesity epidemic in the country is THE NUMBER ONE PROBLEM and has the potential to destroy our healthcare system, and subsequently our economy. I agree that there are all body types as well. But in a country with POOR scientific and medical education, it could be difficult to effectively enact change without a pristine role model.

  6. She Started It

    Well said.

  7. I strongly disagree that Dr. Regina Benjamin’s size and body shape should disqualify her from becoming Surgeon General – and the comparison to a criminal being appointed to the Supreme Court is rather off-base in my opinion, Evenshine.

    It’s not against the law to not look like a swimsuit model, and being a person with a larger body certainly doesn’t preclude one from being healthy, fit, active, and/or qualified for the job.

    As to the notion that Dr. Gates “asked for” being arrested and humiliated on his own property – well, I think it can be very difficult for white people, and yes, I include myself, to understand the experiences of POC. It’s part of white privilege – for most of us white folks, the situation very well might have ended with a friendly thanks and a little chuckle over the situation. Even if we’d been belligerent assholes, an arrest wouldn’t have been as likely. So when we say “oh, you should just be polite and do what they ask”, yeah – it’s white privilege showing – because white people most often do NOT have the experiences of racism that POC do. Only the majority has the luxury of pretending racism is incidental or non-existent.

    And again – even being an asshole isn’t against the law, if that’s how Dr. Gates reacted. Neither is questioning an officer who comes on your property with only a phone call from a random passerby as “evidence”. The officer is the one who is supposed to maintain his/her cool in these situations – they are the ones with the training (and the weapons) and are supposed to be able to deal with this type of thing – and much worse. If they are incapable of handling a few loud remarks without throwing their weight around so civilians who have done nothing wrong know who’s in charge around here, then they need to rethink their career choice.

    Yeah, I agree that police officers are human, and everyone has a bad day now and then, and sure, they do a dangerous job that’s often thankless. I support the police and law enforcement as a general rule, but when the line is crossed they need to own it, and then fix it. Not sweep it under the rug in a typical CYA. And we as a whole society need to question authority and push for full disclosure and accountability – not assume Dr. Gates was angling for a book deal and some advance publicity.

    Great post, Em.

  8. Including people of diverse experiences in all facets of society enriches it. I can say that as a female engineer I certainly offered a different perspective than many of my (overwhelmingly) male colleagues. It didn’t mean I was necessarily better, or that I should receive preferential treatment. But I was absolutely in a much better position to point out how a clip-on ID badge wouldn’t work if you were wearing a dress, when I was the only person in the room who ever had (at least on a regular basis).

    So I agree with you completely.

  9. For the record, the issue is not asking Gates to step outside. Were there a armed robber inside the house, it would allow the officers to protect him. Sure, Gates overreacted. But he did not break the law, and he should not have been arrested. It’s hard to imagine a white guy with a cane arrested in these circumstances.

  10. Coco-“It’s not against the law to not look like a swimsuit model, and being a person with a larger body certainly doesn’t preclude one from being healthy, fit, active, and/or qualified for the job. ”

    Nor was that my contention, if you read carefully. But an unhealthy doctor (and who decides that??) should not be a spokesperson for health in America, just as a lawyer with a record wouldn’t make a wise choice for a SC judge. But Obama’s not been the wisest appointer, now, has he?

    And just as a note- interesting Obama’s comments apologizing to the officer in the Gates case today. Hope they can all have a beer together.

  11. @Evenshine/lifeineden, As I’ve said elsewhere, I cannot imagine Dr. Gates talking about his or anyone else’s mama, just as I have trouble imagining any of his white peers at Harvard doing the same. That was one of the red flags that made me doubt the account as the police reported it. Why does Gates owning his noted intellectual capacity and achievement make you queasy?

    It is not against the law to protest to the police about the treatment you receive at their hands or to be indignant in their presence. Forget Gates’ stature in the community- it amazes me that the Cambridge police would not know who this man was- the man was right off of an international flight with a bronchial infection. I’d have a hard time controlling my temper as well.

    Re: Doctor Benjamin, if we’re going to disqualify her for the position of Surgeon General because we do not think that she is effectively walking the walk and would be an ineffective role model in her position, then we’ll also need to ask a bunch of other doctors and K-12 teachers to change careers.

    It appears that she is healthier than both of her parents, who died of diabetes/high blood pressure and lung cancer. That alone makes her a positive role model to many people also trying to beat their family histories. More to the point of the job, she has shown determination to provide care to her patients even in the worst of circumstances.

    I am baffled that someone who has won a Genius award and received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, among other things, needs to be defended as a pick for this job.

  12. We’ve had old white men running this country since our country began, and look at what a frickin mess it’s in. I think any woman would make wiser choices than an old white man. (well, ALMOST any woman…..I won’t get into specifics) but I will say, I totally agree with Sonja and cannot believe it was sooooo blown out of proportion.

  13. A man was arrested in his own home under circumstances so specious the charges were dropped by the police. How has this been blown out of proportion?

  14. hmmm. What about Gate’s neighbor? How can SHE not have recognized him unless she just moved in. In this case, many people acted poorly, and some justifiably so, but just thinking about this situation is so revealing of our moment in history. It’s a story rich with irony. It’s about class and race and entitlement and pride. I have played the situation out in my head and it’s so complex with humanity. I’m going to be thinking about it for some time.

  15. Ok, Deb — please don’t lump me in with someone else’s comments. I never remarked on Gate’s intellectual capacity (which I respect and acknowledge). Perhaps I overstepped in saying I “agreed” with someone else’s perspective, I suppose that was me giving away my own power.

    I certainly think it is a complex situation. But I don’t think anyone can say that a white person would not have been arrested in the same circumstances. And what about the neighbor who called it in? I can believe there was a chance she did not recognize him, you don’t know how far away she was, and perhaps she was just trying to keep the block safe. Maybe she didn’t observe very long before calling. And despite his stature in the community, I can tell you that living in LA there are lots of well-known people I miss recognizing, so I think it is unfair to have the expectation that they know who he was.

    Should he have been arrested? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Did the police give him enough of an opportunity to calm down? They say they did. Are they correct? I can’t know, wasn’t there.

    I think in all social issues the pendulum swings back and forth before settling in the middle ground. Could the history of racial profiling in this country cause Dr. Gates to become defensive very easily — certainly. Would he be justified in that response — certainly. Does it mean that the police must permit him to get out of hand (if he in fact did) — no. Again, wasn’t there, can’t know.

    As for the Surgeon General issue, as I said, I’m not familiar with that whole story and didn’t research it before commenting. I guess I should have. I agree, her body condition has no bearing on her qualifications to do the job.

    I think these are great, thought-provoking topics.

    (ps — even though I said I was disappointed in Obama for knee-jerk comments, I still think he is a great president. And sorry for the long, defensive post.)

  16. @lifeineden, yes, I “lumped you in” because of your statement that you agreed with Evenshine. My apologies- your agreement didn’t extend to her criticism of his statements about his capacity.

    Cambridge is considerably smaller than LA- I’ve lived in both. Also, I think a “citizen-at-large” has a lower responsibility to recognize everyone than the people hired to protect and police the area. The woman who called it in was not a neighbor but someone who worked at a magazine or newspaper nearby affiliated with Harvard. I am very surprised that she didn’t know who he was either.

    Define “getting out of hand”. Having reviewed the pertinent MA law around this, the justification for the arrest is not there. The Cambridge police ultimately agreed as they dropped the matter.

    I didn’t know much about Dr. Benjamin until I read up on her last night. I named just two of her awards. She is note-worthy as well, in my opinion, for slogging through sewage to make housecalls to her patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

  17. I appreciate your bringing these recent news items together. I love it when you do current events!

  18. @Evenshine – you said “But an unhealthy doctor (and who decides that??) should not be a spokesperson for health in America” (Emphasis mine.)

    “Who decides that?” is exactly it – when we base our opinion of her qualifications on her weight or body shape, we are saying appearance is what matters most in this case. You’ve made a value judgement there based solely on her appearance, with absolutely no evidence that she’s living an “unhealthy” life. May I point out there are plenty of naturally thin people who smoke, eat unhealthy food and do not exercise?

    It’s ridiculous to assume everyone who doesn’t meet a certain criteria of weight is going to contract dozens of serious illnesses and be the downfall of civilization. No, I’m not saying you said that – I’m frustrated, and I’m making an exaggerated point.

    Personally, I’d rather have Dr. Benjamin dispensing national health advice than a thinner doctor (or any size doctor, for that matter) who’s main goal is to prescribe diets (that fail a majority of the time) and thinness at any cost, and thereby make anyone who doesn’t fit in a cookie-cutter ideal of what’s “healthy” feel like crap about themselves.

  19. I can’t see weight being an issue for anyone but a female candidate. I just can’t conceive of a man being criticised for his weight, and good lord that pisses me off mightily.

  20. coldspaghetti

    WOOT!

  21. Emily, everybody has a wealth of experience to draw on unless they’re under 10 years old or live in a private cell. We should ALWAYS pick the most qualified person for any job. Reverse discrimination is every bit as insidious as any other kind of discrimination.

  22. Sotomayor is eminently qualified, regardless of race.

  23. Coco: “You’ve made a value judgement there based solely on her appearance, with absolutely no evidence that she’s living an “unhealthy” life.”

    Um, again, not what I said. I was not the original author of the article, nor do I malign, in any way, Dr. Benjamin’s achievements. I do believe that one’s health is a consideration when speaking authoritatively to millions of Americans about health. Fortunately, I don’t have to make the appointment, but I don’t think that questioning the qualifications of a person is racist or denigrating to any candidate. Ideally, we’d all do this. Unfortunately, we have a reactionary knee-jerkin’ model to follow.

  24. All I can say is that our President getting involved in this mess during his speech on healthcare was incredibly stupid!

    I couldn’t believe my ears and my eyes when he took that bait, and I was furious with him. It was incredibly premature and immature, seeing that he knew none of the facts, other than that his friend was involved. Then, he invites them both to the White House for a beer? Please!!!

    On the most basic of levels, I think all cops have big egos, and I think Mr. Gates has a big ego, and things got way out of hand. It happens all the time, whether everyone is the same race or not. The problem is that the cop with the big ego always gets to slap the cuffs on you, regardless of your color.

    I’m a white female with a big ego, and I got the cuffs slapped on me when I had it out with a cop with a big ego. All I did was mouth off about an injustice to someone else, and I ended up at the station. It happens all the time.

  25. That’s the truth, lola. White guys around here get cuffed all the time for stupid behavior like making things difficult for officers trying to do their job. The truth of the matter is, those officers were there to try and protect Gate’s home from a potential thief. He had no reason to become so indignant. All it would have taken was a simple explanation–but obviously Gates has an attitude and a huge chip on his shoulder. Obama is merely showing his own racism and bias by defending his black friend even while acknowledging that he did not have the facts.
    Pathetic!

  26. Of course Gates has an attitude and a huge chip on his shoulder. He’s an academic — the top of his field. It’s part of the job description. Why the hell do you think I left academia? 🙂

    I think Obama made a huge mistake commenting, even if he did have all the facts. It’s not his business. But, I don’t think he was showing racism — he was showing political stupidity.

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