Saturday, August 1, 2009

Making Sense of the Gates Story - Two Must-Read Articles

So now that the "beer summit" is over, what can we learn from the whole Henry Louis Gates/Sergeant James Crowley arrest story? And what can we learn from the way some have reacted to it? When I see white pundits and commenters on blogs blaming Gates for the whole thing and freaking out when President Obama spoke the truth by famously saying that the Cambridge police acted stupidly by arresting Professor Gates in his own home, I just can't get over how reluctant all of these people are to put themselves in someone else's shoes for just a moment. I think it's because to do so would be to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there is unfairness in the system and that yes, whites do have an unfair advantage. This may be a blow to the ego to realize that one's successes may not be 100% attributable to amazing abilities and talent alone. But instead, we have Glenn Beck having the audacity to call Barack Obama racist. I'm sorry, but any time you have a white male accusing someone of color of being racist, you know that guy is as racist as they come. (I find it interesting how racism is seeping out in not-so-thinly-veiled ways with the election of our first black President, e.g. the birther controversy -- but I digress.)

And why are these same pundits not finding any fault with Sergeant Crowley's actions? Aren't the police supposed to diffuse situations? Once he knew Professor Gates was in his own home, why did things escalate further? Why are there inconsistencies in his police report? Apparently, we can't bring up any of those nuances to the story.

I read two articles that helped me make sense of the whole story with clear and powerful explanations of what it is really all about for African-American people.

First, is a column by Ta-Nehisi Coates that was published in Time Magazine, "When Race Matters" discussing how even the most accomplished, well-educated black men are still vulnerable to racial profiling and unfair treatment from police. Here is a particularly interesting passage:
There has been a temptation to use the Gates arrest as a metaphor for the plight of all black people. And yet much of what we think of as "black issues" doesn't really affect most black people. We too easily conflate the words disproportionate and majority. While a disproportionate number of black males are in prison, the majority of us have no experience with hard time. Black people are overrepresented in the ranks of impoverished Americans — but most of us are not poor. Affirmative action may ignite all sorts of racial tensions — but a lot of black people will never apply to a college where such a program exists. What we often term "black issues" are really "American issues" that affect an uncomfortably large number of black people. For activists looking to rally around race, this has presented a problem over the past few decades: there simply is no single issue that unites blacks with the visceral power of segregation and its accompanying "Whites Only" sign.

Mistreatment by the police, however, remains a shared experience for many African Americans. And it's members of the black upper class — people like Gates and Obama and Ford, black America's most credentialed social stratum — who are most sensitive to overzealous policing and racial profiling. When it comes to encounters with law enforcement, they are uniquely aware of how quickly their accolades can be rendered irrelevant.
The second article "Why Obama Could Relate..." is by amazing columnist, Leonard Pitts Jr., who really strikes home with the point that police mistreatment of minorities happens often and thus becomes a part of the shared experience and "baggage". What this article pointed out to me was that for white people to claim that Gates overreacted and should have just shut up or that Obama was "racist" for leaping to a conclusion that the arrest was stupid shows ignorance and a complete unwillingness to understand the background, history and context or why Obama said what he did to stand up for black people everywhere. Key passage:
Are we supposed to believe it coincidence that the men this happens to always happen to be black?

Some of us do. Some of us have the luxury of never connecting the dots, seeing instead one discrete incident over here and tsk tsk, how terrible that is, and another discrete incident over there and tsk tsk again. And then move on and leave it behind.

But others don't have that luxury, don't get to move on and leave it behind. Others carry it like luggage, wear the residue like sweat, into every encounter with every cop, both good and bad: not always memories of what did happen, but fear of what could.

Unnecessary fear? Sometimes; there are many great cops out there. Perfectly valid fear? All too often.

Here, then, is the take-away of the Gates affair: apparently every black man knows what that fear is like, be he professor, preacher, pundit.

Or president.
I don't pretend to have a perfect understanding of what it's like to be black in America. I have a closer view than most white people, but I still have eye-opening moments. I just hope others can open their eyes, hearts and minds enough to hear the other side and try to make sense of what happened.

1 comment:

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

A thoughtful non-sensationalistic post. Thank you.