We've just been through the most analyzed five minutes anybody ever spent in a bathroom. But there's still one little-noticed part of it that caught my attention. At one point during the taped exchange between Sen. Larry Craig and Sgt. Dave Karsnia of the Minneapolis airport police, Karsnia tries to shame Craig into admitting that he was looking for sex:
Karsnia: . . . I don’t disrespect you but I’m disrespected right now and I’m not trying to act like I have all kinds of power or anything, but you’re sitting here lying to a police officer. . . .
Karsnia: I just, I just, I guess, I guess I’m gonna say I’m just disappointed in you sir. I’m just really am. I expect this from the guy that we get out of the hood. I mean, people vote for you.
Craig: Yes, they do. (inaudible)
Karsnia: unbelievable, unbelievable.
Craig: I’m a respectable person and I don’t do these kinds of…
It seems to me that the phrase, “the guy that we get out of the hood,” is an implied racial reference. It refers specifically to blacks, though one could say the officer meant to refer only to young black men from the ghetto who, in the officer's view, are prone to commit crimes.
Either way, it’s still race-specific in a case that otherwise has no obvious racial dimension. To shame Craig into telling the truth, the officer could have used a different example, like, “I expect this from some punk we get off the street.” Or, “I expect this from some low-life, but not a Senator.” It’s also fairly clear from the context that the officer is not associating blacks with bathroom cruising, but with dishonesty and "disrespect" toward the police.
Why would Karsnia use a race-specific reference in this context? First, the officer may associate blacks in general, or at least those from “the hood,” with bad conduct. In the heat of the exchange, this particular example is the one that first comes to his mind because black men from poor neighborhoods are the kind of people he would most associate with dishonesty and disrespectful behavior.
Second, the officer may have expected that Craig would immediately understand the reference and be especially shamed by it as a law-abiding white person. “Not only were you engaged in this tawdry behavior but now you’re acting like a black thug who lies to a police officer about it," he seems to be saying. I doubt the officer would have used the “hood” reference if he’d been talking to a suspect who was black. It simply wouldn’t have worked against a black suspect, whether that suspect was from "the hood" or not. It would have backfired even if used against, say, a wealthy black lawyer in a business suit. Further, in the presence of a black person the officer would have been sensitized to using a racial reference. It only works as a shaming technique if it’s one white person speaking to another, with no blacks around to object.
The whole thing passed by unnoticed in their conversation; one of the interesting things about it was how matter-of-fact it was. Craig had no audible reaction to the comment except to insist that he is "respectable" — unlike those people from "the hood." The officer made no other racial reference, and of course used no blatantly racist slur, which would be unacceptable in senatorial company.
The moment also passed by unnoticed in the national conversation about the scandal. With just a few exceptions (see, for example, here and here), it hasn’t even been a blip on the blogs. I've seen nothing about it on television.
We can’t draw any grand conclusions from this one phrase in one interview. By itself, it’s not an indictment of our society, or of police in general, or even of just the Minneapolis airport police. If it’s a racist moment, it’s the kind of casual and coded racism that doesn’t even register with most people; it’s part of the background of our lives, so pervasive and common it’s invisible. That may be why it has gone unremarked. Its significance, if any, is that it seems like the sort of thing that happens every day in the interaction of cops and citizens, where presumptions and attitudes about race factor silently into all kinds of decisions small and large. Here we have one very small example of it on tape.
But maybe I've misinterpreted the reference or overstated what it may mean. I’m curious what others think. Please confine any comments to this specific issue, not the many other issues raised by the Craig scandal (e.g., whether he actually committed a crime or what evidence might have been introduced to undermine Karsnia's credbility at trial).
UPDATE: Some commenters suggest that because "the hood" can have non-racial meanings, the cop must not have intended to refer to inner-city blacks here. But coded race references work, when they're used, precisely because they can have non-racial meanings. In a society that condemns overt racism, they send the message you need to send to your target audience and provide deniability to everyone else.
I agree that the reference to "the hood" can mean lots of things. I've heard gay people refer to predominantly gay neighborhoods as the hood. The language of hip-hop has seeped into popular culture and has been appropriated to refer to lots of things, depending on context. But the question is, what's the most likely meaning of "the hood" when a white cop is interrogating a 65-year-old white suspect and trying to shame him into a confession? That he's lying like the people in a poor white neighborhood? Like the people who live in crime-prone neighborhoods in general? Like the people who live in the cop's own neighborhood? I doubt it, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong, which is why I raised the question.