THE ORIGINAL SIN: Why was Whitaker frisked!


Part 2—The heartfelt belief that we know: Why was Forest Whitaker stopped, then frisked, outside a New York deli last month?

To tell you the truth, we don’t know. Everyone agrees that Whitaker did absolutely nothing wrong—that he was mistakenly suspected of shoplifting.

But why was Whitaker suspected? To tell you the truth, we don’t know. There has been little reporting about the incident. As far as we know, the name of the deli employee in question hasn’t even been reported; neither has his age or his race or ethnicity.

There has been no reporting about prior bad conduct or about this deli’s track record.

The deli’s owner has apologized. But in his telephone interview with TMZ, it isn’t especially clear if he himself knows what happened. He insists that his employee’s action wasn’t “racially motivated,” but it’s hard to see how he could possibly know that. Nor is there any obvious way to tell if the owner is sincere in the various things he says.

(In response to a question from TMZ, he explicitly says, “We don’t frisk people.” Was that true before this incident? We have no idea.)

Why then did Whitaker get suspected, then frisked? We can’t tell you! From personal experience, we can report that white people can sometimes get accosted in stores (or on highways) for no apparent reason. We also know that people may sometimes seem to have done X, Y or Z when they actually haven’t.

Having said that, we also assume that black people are frequently profiled in stores and on highways. We would assume that everyone assumes this. We would assume that this assumption is not in serious dispute. We would assume that well-intentioned people know this to be a problem.

Why then did Whitaker get frisked? Did he get frisked because he is black? We don’t know, but by the end of his column in last Thursday’s New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates is fairly clearly asserting that this is what happened. By the end of this passage, it seems fairly clear that this is what Coates has said:
COATES (3/7/13): The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
In that passage, Coates is discussing a welter of important topics, all of which deserve fuller discussion. But by the end of that passage, he clearly seems to say that Whitaker was singled out at the deli—was “addressed as such”—because he is black.

That may be what happened, of course; presumably, many black people get profiled and accosted every day. But on what basis does Coates reach this conclusion about this particular incident? Earlier, Coates, who is black, describes his own experiences at the deli in question:
COATES: The deli where Whitaker was harassed happens to be in my neighborhood. Columbia University is up the street. Broadway, the main drag, is dotted with nice restaurants and classy bars that cater to beautiful people. I like my neighborhood. And I’ve patronized the deli with some regularity, often several times in a single day. I’ve sent my son in my stead. My wife would often trade small talk with whoever was working checkout. Last year when my beautiful niece visited, she loved the deli so much that I felt myself a sideshow. But it’s understandable. It’s a good deli.
From later passages in his column, it seems clear that Coates’ wife is also black. That being the case, Coates says that he and three other family members have frequented the deli “with some regularity, often several times in a single day.” But he reports no racial incidents involving either himself or his family. Why then does he assume that Whitaker was singled out on a racial basis?

We can’t answer that question. We also can’t tell you why Coates says he believes the deli owner is sincere in his statements of mortification—since, of course, it’s always possible that he isn’t sincere at all.

For ourselves, we don’t know how Coates has reached the basic judgments which drive this column. That said, many commenters to this column followed Coates down the path of judgment about the facts of this particular case. Often, they expressed their view of what (must have) happened, speaking with absolute certainty about the mental states of a deli employee who hasn’t even been named.

When the occasional commenter suggests the difficulty of knowing what happened, other commenters push back hard, often in ways which are irrational or illogical. Commenters feel sure about what Person X did, although they don’t know his name—or even his race.

In a city where hundreds of thousands of innocent people get stopped and frisked each year, these people were busy writing a novel about a single incident, a single incident involving a movie star. It seems to us that a problem is lurking here.

Here’s what that problem is:

We the people just aren’t real sharp in the way we evaluate things. This is especially true when we evaluate matters in which great emotion is invested. In this instance, hundreds of commenters stated their view of what happened to Whitaker in a city where hundreds of thousands of average people get stopped and frisked every year, in a set of circumstances which actually are quite clear.

Can we talk? Those average people get stopped and frisked because the mayor, a billionaire, has supported the stop-and-frisk policy. If we want to be angry about innocent people getting frisked on the street in front of bystanders, this provides a wonderful opportunity. Whatever one thinks of the stop-and-frisk policy, it’s obvious who has ordered the frisks—and it’s completely clear that the frisks are deliberate. It’s plain that the architects of the frisks know that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people are going to get stopped and frisked.

Go ahead—read through the hundreds of comments to the Coates column. Many of the commenters come from New York City. But we have only spotted two comments that even mention the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. Many of these comments come from fiery liberals who go to great lengths to describe their own moral greatness, as they drop R-bombs on an employee whose conduct is hard to evaluate.

That said, almost none of these self-impressed people has a single word to say about the problem that arises when a billionaire tells the police to frisk hundreds of thousands of average people. In the moral universe of these comments, billionaires can do that to average people. But deli employees are not allowed to frisk a movie star.

When that particular outrage occurs, we liberals do get mad!

In several major ways, the comments to this column are a disheartening mess. For ourselves, we were especially struck by the self-flagellation of many white liberals, self-flagellation which, it seems to us, is connected to no positive outcome. That said, the fault here begins with Coates, who says quite a few things in the course of this column which are hard to justify or grasp. It seems to us that he may be trying to discuss too many topics in too few words. It also seems that this event may have had a powerful emotional effect for Coates. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have had that effect, though that may not have helped his analysis.

That said, we the people are eager to write fiery novels; we’re also quite eager to jump to conclusions. We are very eager to judge, even as we loudly complain about the employee who judged.

Warning! Despite the lies the pundits tell you, we the people just aren’t very sharp. In this age of deliberate disinformation, this has created a major problem for our struggling democracy. In our view, we the people deserve better guidance than Coates may have supplied in this one instance.

Coates covered a lot of important topics. But lord, did he cover them fast!

Tomorrow: Coates on what “we believe”


  1. Actual Black PersonMarch 12, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    >>>We the people just aren’t real sharp in the way we evaluate things.

    You're right, Bob: you aren't real sharp.

  2. While I admire your usual skeptical stance on this blog, I think it's causing you to miss the forest for the trees in some of your analysis here.

    First, why all of this interest in Forest Whitaker, movie star, instead of the thousands of faceless Black people who are subjected to unwarranted searches? Well, that is the point. Americans are nothing if not aspirational and if an Oscar winner can't enter and exit a deli without getting hassled, it's ... well, it's just very depressing. There's no mountaintop. So, I guess I'd look at this event as the cherry on stop and frisk. As if to say, "oh, and no amount of fame or wealth or achievement will get you out of it either."

    I also think you make as much of a logical leap as you accuse Ta-Nehisi Coates of doing. Just because a Black person has been to a place without incident does not mean that it's unlikely that another might have a racially motivated act done against them in that same place. This sounds to me as closely related to the "I have Black friends" trope. "We've served Black people, before. So our decision to search a Black guy can't be motivated by race!" I myself have managed to be served at Denny's, but that doesn't mean the restaurant chain doesn't have a documented history of racism.

  3. Quaker in a BasementMarch 12, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    "Why then did Whitaker get frisked? Did he get frisked because he is black? We don’t know, but by the end of his column in last Thursday’s New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates is fairly clearly asserting that this is what happened. By the end of this passage, it seems fairly clear that this is what Coates has said:"

    Nonsense. Coates very carefully does NOT say that. What he does say is that just about any adult black person in this country (and men especially) can tell you about a personal experience just as unfair as what happened to Whitaker. Coates quite plainly does NOT guess about the motives of the person who stopped Whitaker and patted him down. Coates does note that it is understandably hard to imagine the same thing happening to, say, Sean Penn.

    And he's right, of course.

  4. Forest Whitaker is a responsible middle-aged adult. Most of the deli's customers are irresponsible teenagers and adults who live and work nearby who do NOT dress appropriately on a cold day. Many just wear a sweater of Spring jacket. Forest was wrapped up a lot more than most of the other customers so he stood out.