Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Ubiquitous "Black Gentleman"

Wes Pruden writes of Gategate:

But what seems to be about race isn't always about color. Mr. Gates accused the cops of asking impertinent questions simply because he's black (or "African-American," in the current fashion). President Obama agreed. In the endless retelling of the tale, the white neighbor who called the cops told the police dispatcher that "two black guys" were trying to break into the Gates abode. A review of the police 911 tape revealed Monday that the caller actually told the dispatcher that "two gentlemen" were trying to get into the door; she subsequently referred to one of them as a "gentleman" and to both of them as "individuals." Nothing about color.

In my experience -- indeed, in my own practice -- "gentleman" is the word that whites eager not to appear racist usually apply to a black man, particularly when his race is the salient factor. Certainly in this case: a woman calling in a B&E would not normally be simultaneously impressed with the alleged perp's manners and bearing. But for a black perp, the word "gentleman" gets deployed as a reflexive self-inoculation against racism.

5 comments:

slwerner said...

"But for a black perp, the word "gentleman" gets deployed as a reflexive self-inoculation against racism."

A very insightful point, indeed. Thank you for pointing that out.

it seems to me that I too have witnessed this very same thing happening wrt court testimony. It seems everyone from citizen witness, through police, prosecutors, and even the judges, all seem to use the "gentleman" term to refer to a black defendant.

I cannot say for certain if non-black men received a similar treatment, but it does seem to me that they tend to be referred to a as either a "male" - as in "as suspicious male", or "an unidentified male", or "the suspect".

I'll have to remember to pay attention to verify fro myself that this is the case.

ironrailsironweights said...

The caller said one of the men looked Hispanic; that might have been Gates, who biologically speaking is predominately of Caucasian ancestry.

Peter

Trumwill said...

I find that I gravitate towards neutral-to-formal terminology whenever I am referring to someone that I don't don't care for but feel the need to be polite about. Blacks may be over-represented in that population, but they're not the only ones. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't be referring to anybody as "gentlemen" in that case. So your explanation may well fit the case.

On a sidenote, I find Pruden's parenthesized aside about "African Americans" to be exceptionally aggravating. It comes across as sneering and sneering over a group's choice of one term over another suggests a certain contempt that detracts from what he's saying. If you don't want to use the term, don't use the term. But don't be a snot about it.

ironrailsironweights said...

On a sidenote, I find Pruden's parenthesized aside about "African Americans" to be exceptionally aggravating. It comes across as sneering and sneering over a group's choice of one term over another suggests a certain contempt that detracts from what he's saying.

I don't know ... when a non-black person says "African American" it sounds like he or she is trying to be politically correct in an almost ingratiating way. "Black" is not an offensive term.

Peter

Brandon Berg said...

Use of the word "gentleman" as a synonym for man rather than an actual gentleman is something that annoys me, so I also caught its overuse in the police report. I'd never noticed before that it's used disproportionately to refer to black men, though.