Friday, June 21, 2024

Welcome to the neighborhood, Dr. Gates…

July 21, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Mainstream media coverage of the NAACP Centennial Convention held in New York last week generally proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” for the NAACP. Since Barack Obama took over the nation, in many people’s minds (both black and white), racism is over. The recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates — Mr. Black in the minds of much of academia – is a newsflash to the contrary. Gates has so successfully served as an African American gatekeeper that he has even helmed the successful PBS series “African American Lives,” which has helped such prominent Black Americans as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Joyner shake their family trees all the way back to Africa. Gates doesn’t wear baggy jeans or hold a mic in his hand. He’s done all the right things. Serving as the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research at Harvard University, he wields a mighty sword in all things African American.

The details have been sketchy. A passerby, a white woman who presumably lives in Gates’ Cambridge neighborhood, noticed a black man, well, two – Gates and his cab driver – trying to get into a house without a key and rightfully called the police. Let’s not jump on the messenger. If this had been an actual break-in, I’m sure Dr. Gates would have appreciated the police being called. The problem began when Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley arrested Dr. Gates aware that Gates was in his own home. The alleged “disorderly conduct” occurred once Gates reportedly began sharing exactly how he felt about the incident.

Gates’ arrest serves as a powerful reminder that all is not well in post-Obama America. Because the full details aren’t in, it’s not safe to jump to conclusions of racial profiling and racism on the sergeant’s part. For all we know, the officer could have been doing his job and Gates, knowing the truth from his perspective, never heard that part of the discussion. And perhaps such a burst of outrage from a white man of similar stature would not have warranted an arrest. We don’t know the specifics of this incident yet. What we do know is: certain actions from us are interpreted differently than they are from others. It’s why black men have often been taught to be quiet in the presence of a police officer, to speak only when spoken to.

Is it fair? Probably not but it is a survival mechanism. Had Gates been a younger professor, with no reputation to warrant CNN and NY Times coverage, what would this arrest have meant to him? Would it have ended his academic career? As he interviewed for other positions, would a disorderly conduct charge, if it stuck, be the flag that signaled that he was not okay? Would it leave him jobless – frustrated enough to leave academia altogether?

Being black in America means that you are not as free as some other American citizens. Obama’s election has yet to erase that fact. Many white Americans believe that black men, in particular, imagine such bias. Despite incident after incident, racial injustice is still viewed as a tall tale on our part. Read the blogs in response to Gates’ arrest. He has been accused of pulling out his platinum race card and that’s the kind one.

My frustration lies in our response to such incidents. By and large, we chalk it up to black and white people getting along when these biases are of an institutional scope. We have to use these incidents the same way we file class action suits. Instead of dwelling on what happened to Gates, can we look into that police department’s record? How many African Americans live in the area? What percentage of the arrests do they account for in relation to their population? How many white men have the police department stopped? How many have been arrested, especially in their own home?

We have to get out of the “me” generation and go back to the “we” one. Life for you and I may be fine, but it’s not for much of our race. Unlike Gates, reporters don’t flock to similar “victims“. No one is awaiting the press conference. For Gates to move this beyond what has happened to him, I hope that he and his esteemed friend and legal eagle Charles Ogletree will use this incident to bring attention to the reality that many black men specifically face every single day by calling for collective action. Only then, can justice be served for us all.

Written By Ronda Racha Penrice

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