On July 17th I was waking up and was still groggy when I heard a short item reported on MSNBC that an African American Harvard professor had been arrested in his home after someone reported a possible burglary. It was a short item with few details; not even the name of the professor was reported. I went to the computer and read a Boston Globe article that gave some more detail, but not a lot.
It seemed that it was a story that would capture some air time on television news since racial issues tend to do that and this one in particular included a noted African American scholar and a white Cambridge police officer. This was not just any African American scholar but one of the preëminent African American intellectuals in the world who is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
Then the story exploded and the media were obsessing- a good 48 hours before President Obama was asked about the situation at his press conference that was supposed to focus on healthcare. When I watched the press conference- I was actually surprised when right after it was over, Chris Matthews said that this question and answer would probably be the bigger new story. I wasn’t surprised by the President’s answer and it didn’t disturb me either. I agreed with the President that the Cambridge police acted stupidly. I still think that they acted stupidly. Do I think that they were profiling Professor Gates? Probably not. But they did act stupidly by arresting him for disorderly conduct.
I don’t know anyone, of any race, that would not be upset if the police came to their home and were asked to step outside and prove that they lived there. It would unnerve the best of us. How it feels for an African American- I cannot imagine since I am white. But I believe that it would evoke profoundly disturbing feelings based on our nation’s abysmal record on race; the election of an African American president notwithstanding. The election of our first African American president is truly a watershed but it doesn’t mean that we live in a post racial society- we do not and we do not like to talk about it either.
The national media reported this incident with their usual style of taking a nuanced complex situation where there are no heroes or villains and turning it into a bad theatre piece distilled to black and white not shades of gray. After the president’s comments the media salivated at the prospect of stoking the fire and feigning shock that he had commented so candidly and in doing so had offended white police officers across the country. The President hadn’t said that Officer Crowley acted out of a racist soul, he said he didn’t know, but he still thought that the police had acted stupidly- and they had. Even if Professor Gates was wildly disturbed and overreacted why could the police not have calmly told him that they had to follow up on the report of a break in, that they were sorry for the error and that they understood how disconcerting this incident must be for him. That could have deëscalated the situation but instead the cuffed him. If Officer Crowley indeed teaches other police officer on ways to control their impulse to racially profile, he is woefully lacking an understanding of the African American experience. Just because he wasn’t profiling Professor Gates doesn’t mean that for Professor Gates it wasn’t about racial profiling.
The national media did not report on a lot of facts that are important to know. According to a report by Hillel Italie of AP, decades ago – Henry Louis Gates Jr. and some friends nearly set off a brawl trying to integrate a West Virginia club. Gates and the others were circled by a white mob. The owner screamed at the black students to leave, slamming one of them against a wall. The club was shut down, but Gates had been marked: West Virginia police, he would write in his memoir, placed him on a list of those who might be detained should race riots break out during election time. Could that incident have scarred him personally?
And while the reporting of media was sympathetic to the Cambridge and Harvard communities as enlightened and where race is not an issue for the city’s resident and police and the university’s students; nothing could be further from the truth.
The Harvard University newspaper “The Crimson” wrote the following:
“At Harvard, though, the Gates arrest is nothing new—it bears an uncanny resemblance to what has come before it. Last August, a black high school student was, like Gates, confronted by police for attempting to “steal” his own property while trying to unlock his bike. And in the spring of 2007, students called the police on the Black Men’s Forum and Association of Black Harvard Women barbeque in the Quad following a heated discussion on the Cabot House email list in which many expressed skepticism that the picnickers were actually Harvard students”
Harvard and its home of Cambridge Massachusetts is a place where racial tension exists but it is impolite to bring it up. Harvard is too enlightened and Cambridge is too filled with liberal intellectuals to ever brook racism. Sorry that is a myth. Harvard has many students, especially undergraduates and Law students, that have little experience with people outside their sphere of white and privileged and have no interes in having that experience. Cambridge is an upper middle class world where black people are not the norm and they stand out.
All of Professor Gates’ personal experiences and the local racial tensions played out in a nation where race permeates virtually every part of our national life. Should it surprise anyone that Professor Gates “over reacted”?
Many white people in America would like to believe that race is no longer an issue. They are tired of people of color bringing up the past. “Slavery and Jim Crowe are over now”, they often say with irritation, “Can’t we move on? I’m not racist! See some of my best friends are (insert race, ethnicity of choice).”
In a survey done in early 2009, 44 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites continue to see racism as a large societal problem. In 1996, 70 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites held that view. Conversely, 28 percent of whites and 15 percent of blacks in the new survey said they see racism as a small problem or no problem at all. Racial disparities are also apparent when people were asked whether African Americans have achieved or will achieve racial equality in this country. Seventy-three percent of all those surveyed said African Americans have reached or will soon reach equality, including three-quarters of whites and just over half of blacks. Overall, 47 percent of Americans — including nearly two-thirds of blacks and 43 percent of whites — said they think blacks in their communities experience racial discrimination. Meanwhile, more than four in 10 Americans said they have been discriminated against. Nearly three-quarters of blacks said that was the case, as did three in 10 whites.
Clearly African Americans and White Americans do not have the same American experience and those of us in White America had better look at that and try to understand just how indelibly etched race is into our live. It dictates how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us.
Of course it isn’t just an African American issue. Just think back a couple of weeks ago to the confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor in the Senate Judicial Committee and you can see the embarrassment of how old Southern white guys don’t know how to deal with a wise Latina. I won’t go into how the press and the Republican Senators conveniently took many of her comments they deemed “troubling” out of context. If they would have read the entire text of these articles and speeches, they might have been less troubled. But that would mean that they had the ability to think outside their own narrow prism.
They didn’t focus on her extensive canon of decisions on the federal bench because there was nothing there to make their case that she was an activist judge with a race bias against whites. Of course the exception was focusing on Ricci v. DeStefano (The New Haven Firemen case). In Ricci, the 2nd Court of Appeals Panel, which included Judge Sotomayor, based their opinion on precedent in that circuit; they were hardly being activist. In her dissenting opinion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the point that in actuality the Supreme Court was being activist in its decision and was establishing new law.
Every time that Senators Hatch, Sessions, Graham and Coburn would bring up how Jose Cabranes had a different opinion than she did in Ricci and how they would have been happy to have seen Miguel Estrada confirmed to the federal bench- I would cringe. “Hey we like some Latinos!” How white of them. I won’t even go into Senator Coburn’s “you got some ‘splainin’ to do” comment.
Of course the most surreal part of the hearing was Senator Jeff Sessions. This is the same Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III who had once said that he thought the NAACP – the organization formed to fight lynchings – was a “Anti-American/Communist” association. He also called a fellow white lawyer who defended black people a “Traitor to his Race” and said that the Ku Klux Klan was not so bad until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana. And this is a man who has the temerity to be concerned about Sonia Sotomayor’s racism?
It was an embarrassment to watch these white men question the Judge. Their condescending and arrogant lecturing bounced from racist to sexist and I honestly do not believe that they recognized how egregious their behavior was.
Race is an omnipresent issue in our country. We all would like to believe we live in a post racial society, we even have the election of President Obama to rationalize that fantasy. Race is our original sin and our fatal flaw. Racism was written into our Constitution – the very document that is also a beacon of liberty and freedom- in the form of the 3/5 clause in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 which counted blacks as 3/5 of 1 human being. Our history haunts us because we are afraid of it.
Both the Gates arrest and the Sotomayor hearings can be used as teaching moments about race in this nation. The President artfully talked about race in both his impromptu appearance in the White House press room to “clean up” his answer to the question about Professor Gates and his speech in Philadelphia during the campaign about race after the Reverend Wright brouhaha. But can we as a nation talk about race honestly?
In a speech Attorney General Eric Holder made in honor of black history month in February 2009, he eloquently stated the importance of an honest conversation about race and confronted us with our reluctance to do so.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must – and will – lead the nation to the “new birth of freedom” so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation. “
I hope someday we all take on our duty and solemn obligation. Mr. Holder is correct; we are cowards when it comes to talking about race. If we do not learn to overcome that cowardice we will have more arrests like Professor Gates and more embarrassments like the Sotomayor hearing.