Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Tape of the World

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

"I do not know a single Black man in this country, from any walk of life, who does not think that the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates in his home by a White police officer was not about race."Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post


Two weeks ago Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his home by White police officer Jim Crowley (the irony of that name is almost too much to contemplate). The professor was arrested after showing identification proving that he was indeed in his own home and was not a burgler. Gates had returned from a trip to find his front door jammed. He asked his cab driver to help him force it open. A woman passing by called the cops to say, she wasn't sure, but there might be a burglary in progress. The woman never mentioned race.

Officer Crowley showed up to find Professor Gates already in his home. He asked for identification, which the professor produced, proving he was indeed the occupant of that house. Crowley then proceeded to treat Gates as a suspect: Hand on holster, he asked the professor to step outside. Gates, a veteran like the rest of us of too many tales of Black men wrongly shot by cops, refused. Some reports say the professor grew irate, but in fact, the tape of the incident released by police reveals no such thing. He merely protested being accosted and bossed in his own home. But at that moment, despite all his accomplishments, he became just an uppity Negro who offended a White cop by not showing proper deference. Out came the handcuffs.

If you are Black in America, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Gates's arrest was about nothing more than affronted racial egos. On both sides.

The charges were ultimately dropped, and the Cambridge police apologized to the professor, evidence of their assessment that Gates was wrongly detained. Then President Obama, in a rare instance of less-than-careful (albeit truthful) speech, called the arrest "stupid." And the media frenzy began. On Fox News, Glen Beck declared that the President was racist. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough reflected that what happened to Gates would never have happened to a White professor proven to be in his own home. Cops in Cambridge groused that the President was hostile to law enforcement. And on and on.

Today the President, the professor and the police officer will sit down for beers in the White House garden to try to work out a peace. I have no doubt they will achieve some sort of resolution, that they will each leave there with a better understanding of how this happened, and of one another. As for the rest of America, I'm not so sure.

The whole unfortunate saga brings three things to mind for me.

1) When my son was younger, I taught him that if he ever got lost, he should not seek out a male cop. Instead, he should find an older woman who seemed like a sympathetic aunt or grandmother and ask for her help. My reasoning was an older woman would be more likely to stay with him until he was well and truly safe. A male cop, on the other hand, was a crapshoot. He might be a good sort, or he might be subject to conscious or unconscious stereotypes and see nothing in my son but a present or future criminal.

2) My son runs track. He is a hurdler and a 200-meter and 400-meter sprinter. I have always encouraged him to train on the fields at his school rather than in the public park near us, because I secretly worry that when cops see any Black male running, all they see is a suspect.

3) Many people asked Michelle Obama in the weeks leading up to her husband's declaring himself a candidate for president, whether she wasn't terrified that he would be shot. Indeed, the night Obama won the Iowa Caucus, my own mother was anything but happy. "They're going to shoot him," she said worriedly. "I don't want him to run. I don't want him to win." "Mom, that's just fear talking," I told her. "We can't sit still and let our fears run rampant. We'll never take a step forward." (Bold words coming from noisy-brained me!) Michelle Obama apparently agreed. Her answer to those unsettling questions? "As a Black man, Barack could be shot just going to the store," she said. "So no, we don't give in to those fears."

Post-racial America? Not yet.


  1. Have you seen the police report? If not, it's here:

    The point of view of the arresting officer is certainly... interesting. I haven't read a lot of police reports, but it seems a bit CYA-skewed to me.

  2. thanks for the link, ellen. i give the president a lot of credit for simmering things down.

  3. excellent advice to your son.

    I hope we achieve a post-racial america in my (our) lifetime....despite some tough rows to hoe, I am cautiously optimistic!

    thanks for your thoughtful post.


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