JOHN MCWHORTER JULY 22, 2009
There is nothing glib to say, in any responsible sense, about Henry Louis Gates' arrest last week, which is this week's big race story. Its value is as an object lesson in why, with a black President, there remains a contingent convinced that America is still all about racism.
Gates' belligerence--"Why, because I'm a black man in America?"--may not have been pretty. However, tarring him as a professional racebaiter is inaccurate. One senses here a lazy analogy with his former Harvard Afro-American Studies department colleague Cornel West.
Those who regularly dismiss West as an academic Al Sharpton would be surprised at the warmth and erudition of the man himself in person. However, his quitting Harvard for Princeton in a huff in 2001 when then-Harvard Pres Lawrence Summers requested that he returned to writing academic books was indeed, in my opinion, a misguided cry of racism, leaving an implication that black scholars are somehow exempt from doing what real academics do as a matter of course.
That sort of thing has not been typical, however, of Gates. He has even been assailed by black writers lefter than him of being what used to be called an accommodationist, such as by Reverend Eugene Rivers, and Houston Baker--best known as one of the "Duke 88" professors raking subsequently acquitted lacrosse players over the coals for raping a black stripper--assailing assorted black public intellectuals. Gates has never been a rabble-rouser.
And meanwhile, the idea that he should have exhibited "deference to the police" ignores the totemic status that black men's encounters with the police have in the way countless people process being black and what it means. There's a reason Gates told the Washington Post Tuesday that what happened to him was part of a "racial narrative," and that awareness surely informed his angry conduct.
The relationship between black men and police forces is, in fact, the main thing keeping America from becoming "post-racial" in any sense.
Here is where many will object with statistics about residential segregation, disparities in car loans and health care, and most recently, the dumping of subprime mortgages in black communities.
These, however, are more news stories than things felt on a visceral level among ordinary people as evidence that racism is still virulent in this country, a defining experience of being black. As Newsweek's Ellis Cose put it in his widely read The Rage of a Privileged Class, "in the real world such statistics are almost irrelevant, for rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination or from professional prospects projected on a statistician's screen."
What creates the true rub is unpleasant live social encounters, and none have such potent effect as ones with the cops.
When I first started writing for the media on race, despite my initial reputation as a hidebound "black conservative" I made sure to point up how important this problem between blacks and police forces was, such as in this now ancient editorial. It was the first time I got a raft of hate mail from white people--they only wanted me to write about things black people were doing wrong. I expanded it into a chapter in my anthology of essays--and my impression is that it has been the least read of any of the chapters in that book. People seem to see the issue as somehow beside the point.
It isn't--it's a defining sentiment of a race in transition. It's behind the notorious "Stop Snitching" ideology that discourages black inner city residents from helping cops root out the thugs killing other black people. It's one of the keystone topics of "conscious" rap. It's black Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo, who sat with Gates at the stationhouse after his arrest, saying "Ain't nothing post-racial about the United States of America."
It's something I grappled with when I was writing the book that led to my writing on race, Losing the Race. While I was writing it, I made sure to read around, listen around, and travel around in order to make sure I wasn't missing anything in writing that black people were exaggerating about racism. As far as I was concerned, it wouldn't do to just write from my own experience.
Plus, I found the disjunction between real life (as it seemed to me) and the way so many black people pontificated too interesting to just dismiss people who didn't think like me as "crazy." They clearly weren't. What was making them say the things they were saying?
And the main thing I noticed was that what stood in the way of an open approach to progress on race was the police. I ran up against it again and again. Snippet recollections about then and afterward:
1999: Charles Ogletree, black Harvard Law Professor and Gates' lawyer, was speaking at an event at Stanford on race and the law, sharing a story of being stopped by cops on drug searches more than once. Earnest young black law students were sitting at "Tree"'s feet bristling at the indignity he had suffered and thinking of ways they could fight the Power.
1998: The Berkeley African-American Studies department held a kick-off conference when upgraded to a doctoral program. A thirty-something black man with a Michael Eric Dyson-esque cadence commented during a question session about what it was like "Being a Black Man in America." Imagine "black" enunciated with a certain quietly explosive push on the b: "bh-LACK." He was a good rhetorician. And there was an audible rise in the room when he said it. What did he mean, in the progressive Bay Area where many of the black attendees likely had white Significant Others, and what did the audience mean in their response? I guessed the police - and listening to him in a conversation during the break it was clear that it was exactly what he meant.
2001: One night I was at a bar in Oakland with a black friend of mine. A white guy walked over for a bit. He mentioned the Race Incident of that week - a white officer in Inglewood, California had banged a black teen's head against a squad car. "And you know, for every one of those things you hear about there were a dozen more ...!" he said upon taking his leave. His idea was that this was what black guys wanted to hear. He didn't mention car loans. Profiling, as he had drunken in, was what black people were mad about. They still are. Now at that same bar (Smitty's on Grand, for East Bay folks) that guy would mention Oscar Grant, a black teen killed for unclear reason by a white policeman last New Year's Day.
Or, even the closest thing I have experienced to what Gates did, as I recounted in Losing the Race. The time is 1998:
One night at about one in the morning I was walking to a convenience store. I was in jeans, sneakers and a short-sleeved button-down shirt open over a T-shirt. I had a few days' worth of stubble. I crossed a two-lane street far from the traffic light or crosswalk, and when I saw a car coming at about 25 yards away I broke into a quick trot to get across before it got to where I was.
I hadn't realized that the car was a police car, and the officer quickly turned on the siren, made a screeching U-turn and pulled up to me on the other side of the street. The window rolled down, revealing a white man who would have been played by Danny Aiello if it had been a movie. "You always cross streets whenever you feel like it like that?" he sneered. "I'm sorry, officer," I said; "I wasn't thinking." "Even in front of a police car?" he growled threateningly. My stomach jumped, and I realized that at that moment, despite being a tenured professor at an elite university, to this man I was a black street thug, a "youth."
I simply cannot imagine him stopping like this if a white man of the same age in the same clothes with the same stubble had done the exact same thing; he was trawling through a neighborhood which, unfortunately, does sometimes harbor a certain amount of questionable behavior by young black men on that street at that time of night, and to him, the color of my skin rendered me a suspect.
I explained again as calmly as I could that I had meant no disrespect. I frankly suspect that the educated tone of my voice, so often an inconvenience in my life, was part of what made him pull off - "Not the type," he was probably thinking. But if I had answered in a black-inflected voice with the subtle mannerisms that distinguish one as "street," the encounter would quite possibly have gone on longer and maybe even gotten ugly. He pulled off, and left me shaken and violated.
This kind of thing--i.e. the larger "narrative"--is what informed Henry Louis Gates' response to the police questioning him for breaking into his own house. It's a real problem. There are things that would help us get past it, and training white officers in sensitivity is but one.
We should get more serious about organizations helping ex-cons to stay ex, as I have argued here and elsewhere. We should steer black men not interested in college to community college certification for solid vocational jobs to distract them from the canard that selling drugs is a coping strategy, as I argue currently here. We should eliminate the War on Drugs, as I argued here and will expand on in future.
But until that happens, we cannot call people like Gates drama queens for treating the invasion of their privacy by the fuzz as a symptom of something larger and vocalizing accordingly.
I maintain that racism is no longer the main problem for black America--but have always said that when racism rears its ugly head it must be stomped upon. In 2009, Obama acknowledged, black men's encounters with the police (as well as some black women's) are unlike enough to what whites encounter that attention must still be paid.