Friday, July 24, 2009

Be It Ever So Humble...

There are some controversies I've decided to stay away from for the time being - Michael Jackson, for instance (way too complex and way too much coverage for the time being). And I was going to put Harvard University's Henry Gates imbroglio in the same category, but let's just say I can't help it...

There is a since in which its hard for me to describe the whole incident as sad.

In the first place, Gates' arrest is in his own home. Now, don't get me wrong, people are arrested at home everyday - usually because they are suspected of a crime, and most often a warrant of some sort is involved. Dr. Gates' arrest doesn't even involve the crime that the police were investigating - he was arrested for 'disorderly conduct' because he was evidently incensed that the police officer followed him into his house, was provided information that proved that he was the owner of the house and the investigating officer would not provide Dr. Gates' with his identification. I have a hard time imagining anyone not getting irate at this point. Gates' at that time 'plays the race card'. And I can't blame him.

Don't get me wrong. I don't know that I would have handled the situation the way that Professor Gates did. But, then again, I'm not a wealthy, celebrated Harvard professor, either. I don't have a long list of accomplishments that would lead me to think that, standing in my own house and having proved as much, that my veracity would be questioned to the point that an officer of the law wouldn't, out of sheer professionalism, identify himself.

Gates' reaction is the reaction of someone who has discovered the humiliating suspicion/confirmation that there is nothing one can do, no professional, academic, or otherwise honest noteworthy attainment that one can have that would keep one from being treated from being treated with respect.

I think, also, that Dr. Gates' was surprised by the 'non-academic' nature of his circumstances - no longer was 'driving while black' an abstract. He wasn't driving a 'nice care', nor was he cruising through a 'nice neighborhood', he was in his own home! There is also this sense in which you realize that the vulnerability that everyone African-American male feels when a police car drives up too close behind you, or doesn't take off along side you fast enough, or stares too long at you on the street or in a convenience store is something you cannot afford to feel as if you can ever transcend. It is, if you will, a 'Spidey-sense' with which you must always live for your own protection.

This is what a number of white people still don't get: the experience of African-Americans with police (and actually authority figures in general), is different than that of white Americans. For the most part, white Americans can feel 'comforted' and protected by the presence of law enforcement officials. African-Americans, while dependent upon law enforcement for the protection of life and property, know of history - in not personal experience - where law enforcement has victimized them, exploited them, arrested, falsely and yes, done violence, executed and even murdered them with impunity. There are people who can still remember family members who have been the victims of police brutality. When Skip Gates, Harvard professor and a celebrated member of what was at one time called Harvard's 'Dream Team' (African-American Harvard professors, widely recognized and highly sought after because of their intellect and insight), becomes one who - even if in his own mind - has to undergo such humiliation then who really is 'safe'?

Because we are over our shock, we are now begin to hear the other voices - Officer Crowley excellent record, he taught a diversity class for police officers, his sterling reputation. And there is no reason to doubt any of this. But Henry Louis Gates' record is also 'sterling': a prolific author, a highly respected scholar, nationally and internationally, a PBS contributor on subjects ranging from history and genealogy, to sociology, and a tenured Harvard professor. How is it that his perspective can be any less credible at any point than the officer's? And if Officer Crowley was 'just doing his job'? What was Gates' doing - in his own home?! Why isn't Henry Louis Gates, in his own home just as credible as Officer Crowley's 'just doing his job?'

There is one other thing. Think of the message that this relays to the young African-American boys and girls who watch this (because they are watching!). Because we tell them that they have to 'stay out of trouble'; 'get a good education'; 'get a good job'; 'make a contribution', 'give back to society'. Do we add the caveat now, 'But always watch over your shoulder because you could be doing nothing at all and be arrested - even in your own home'?

We are sending so many mixed messages to the black children and youth whom we consider to be a problem. Those who have a problem with President Obama's politics and policies, cannot argue against them on their merits - the personalization says, again, that there are no heights that can be attained that keeps blackness from being an unforgivable sin. You can be president of the Harvard Law Review, a constitutional law professor, a politician who rises to the highest office in the land and have not only your patriotism, but even your citizenship questioned! Even if succeed, there must be something dark, sinister and alien about you. And so the admonition of whites for blacks to be 'responsible' gets to be seen, not as compassion and caring, but a desire for African-Americans to become less threatening and less scary.

But in the case of Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates - no less vulnerable. Even in his own home.


Karen said...

I just heard a commentary on National Public Radio which was at least a little comforting: a police chief from Chapel Hill, NC and a former police officer were both interviewed. Each said he did not see a proper circumstance in which any citizen in his own home, even if he becomes verbally 'abusive' to a police officer -- and even provocative -- could rightly be arrested. It seems the officer in question was not 'doing his job,' no matter his sensitivity training. He was out of line.

Karen said...

To elucidate further, the Chief said in essence that the proper role of police inside someone's home -- as distinct from what might be appropriate in a public setting or out on the street -- is to DIFFUSE any tension in the situation, NOT to plant a flag for the power of the police.