Monday, July 27, 2009

Are We Laughing Yet? Race, Class, Gender and the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates

Our Henry Louis Gatesathon continues...doesn't that sound like an olympic event? From our guest poster Buhbajangal (always honest and a bit impassioned), some reflections on why folks are really talking about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.


All the talk these last few days has either been about Michael Jackson’s death (was it manslaughter?), healthcare (it’s not looking good for the people’s plan), or the Skip Gates incident. Let me tackle the latter:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., otherwise referred to as Skip Gates, Black Harvard professor (nationally renowned, by the way), apparently returned home in the middle of the day the other day and had reportedly forgotten his keys. So…he forced his way into his Cambridge home. His neighbor (who allegedly has some affiliation with the same university and likely should have been able to recognize Gates) called the police who arrived on a breaking and entering call. So far, fine. Seems though that the situation escalated when Gates was asked to exit the house (protocol, given that the caller said there were possibly two suspects and if someone had been holding Gates against his will, trust me, he would have been happy that this is standard procedure) and Gates identified himself as the homeowner (showing ID even) and thought the matter should just rest there.

It just kept getting crazier. Accounts vary, even contradict—in one (from the officers), Gates was belligerent; in another, the officer was less than respectful in his requests/commands. You know what? It’s probably a little bit of both.

What is hilarious now is that this is suddenly a national issue because it’s Skip Gates (who is a big to-do in academic circles, regardless of race) and because it’s Skip Gates (who is a friend of the current president). Uh oh. Someone asked the President for his thoughts the other night (does anyone remember why the President was even addressing the nation? Healthcare!), and Obama didn’t run. (Tough spot—don’t answer and Black people are going, This nigger really is dodging from the race issue, isn’t he? Answer honestly and, as is the case now, white people go, See how they have each other’s backs? For the record, so true!

But that’s not race based. Gates is Obama’s personal friend! I’m imagining we all have friends whom we know would be starting some shit that we wish they wouldn’t 'cause they wrong as hell but we’re not going to let them get their asses kicked. Though we may threaten to kick it later: “Why you always starting some bullshit, yo? I’m about to be done going anywhere with your stupid ass!”)

What is hilarious is that people actually are talking about this situation like there is a right and wrong; the truth is this thing is so subjective. Based on our life experiences we’re going to see what we’re going to see. Let me tell my truth: Skip Gates, whose work I respect and admire is not what people are making him out to be. I am familiar with his work. He is far from a Black radical. Black Panther material he is not! Don’t make him into that now. His only Black friends are likely other people who summer in the Vineyard. What Gates is extremely educated, highly intelligent, nationally renowned, and worth a pretty penny. Believe me, if there was any indignation in Gates’s tone with the officers (and I believe there may have been) it wasn’t simply that he is a Black man being subjected to some sort of humiliation (which would have annoyed every one of us) but that he is THE Skip Gates—who done took Whoopi and Chris Rock and others back to Africa, who is friends with the President—being treated like Joe Schmoe. The nerve!

And if there was some stanky attitude on the part of the white officer (and I believe there was from Mr. I-will-never-apologize) it was not because Gates is Black (well, not only because) but because those overpaid Harvard professors always be acting all uppity. And really, all too often these career academics begin to live in their little college towns and get an over-inflated sense of self-worth; they think of the rest of the world as not as… Look, I know I am not the only one who has ever read The Outsiders and grasped the distinctions and tensions between the Greasers (have-nots) and the Socs (haves) or watched the early episodes of One Tree Hill with the Townies and them other people!

What is hilarious is that now people want to put the President’s “acted stupidly” remark in the middle of this. (Lord Jesus, better him than me because the reporter who asked me the question would have gotten The Look. You know the one your mother used to use when she wanted you to know you had said too much about what goes on in HER house and now you are going to get your tail lick in later on.)

Lemme confess though: I laughed hard when the President said the bit about if he had been breaking into his house, which is now the White House, he would have been shot. Something only a thoughtful Black President would say. Umm. For those of us at home: wink wink. (He even had That Smile—the one that says, “Don’t let them fool ya.” In other situations a brotha would be dead!)

Now for those white people who would take offense at truth, that Black and brown folks dare say there is such a thing as racial profiling: Look, the Cambridge Police Department claims that the officer in question teaches a class on this matter. Why would they need a class? Because racial profiling exists! We’re not making that shit up. Stop doing the “there they go again” routine. Come on, it’s still tough to be young, Black, and male out here. What needs saying in all this nonsense is—what the President playfully alluded to—that Gates is fortunate that his incident with police only ended with him in handcuffs.

A few days ago I learned that a friend of mine lost his brother after an encounter with Chicago police, learned that witnesses saw police beating this young man whom I knew (who lived with my family for a time) when he was a child. When I knew him, he was always agreeable, eager to please in that way that so often comes with being mentally challenged. After being beaten, he was arrested and put in a cell. Reports are that he hanged himself there (even though officers had followed procedure and confiscated his laces and belt). Three white police officers and one young, mentally challenged Black man who was allegedly walking in the wrong place at the wrong hour (though he was actually in the neighborhood where he lived with his older brother, who is a university professor). From what I have heard, he wasn’t being disorderly, simply looked out of place. From what I know of him, he would have been cowering and likely crying. His mother in her too-short time on this Earth did not fail to raise good sons and when I heard the news I immediately thought of her, wherever one goes after life, weeping at the way life ended for her good boy.

Fact: Young Black men tend to get the shit end of the stick in their dealings with police. Emphasis on "young." But to the voices who shout loudest about police interacting differently (read “unfairly”) with Black and brown people than they do with white people, I say, “Wait… I don’t think they’re any kinder to poor white people.” (And many of these damn police officers are formerly poorer, still white people.) What I mean is the trouble isn’t just race. This is about class. Even (or especially) in this instance.

We all need to learn how to deal with people who have more or less money than we do (or perhaps in these precarious economic times than we used to).

And this is about the way men can behave! Yes, you heard me right…Men!

Would it have killed both of them to say, “Yes, sir”; “No, sir”; and “Have a good day, sir” to the other? Even if either of them was being an asshole? But they all have their large doses of testosterone and their little male egos to worry about. You know what a typical female officer would have done there? “Good day, sir” and then gotten back into the patrol car saying, “Fucking idiot!” Which is what the damn police officer should have done. When Gates asked for the officer’s name, the officer should have offered to spell it, which is what a woman who really doesn’t want the situation to escalate to a physical confrontation or needless paperwork would have done knowing that she had followed protocol.

Do we women need to show you men how everything should be done?

What is hilarious is that now everybody’s talking about race and it’s about time! Except it’s about how white men are not-so-subtly being oppressed in America. (Look at how this white man was just doing his job and now we are vilifying him. Look at how those New Haven firefighters got refused a promotion because… Did anybody see them all gathered for their class photo? All men! When people start going on these anti-Affirmative Action campaigns I wonder if they do not see where women are.)

What is hilarious is… Are you laughing yet?


spongefrob said...


Clarifications, some minor, others not...

Gates did not 'forget' his keys. He returned from a recent trip to China to find his front door inoperable. It was jammed, stuck, wedged and not opening. He went 'round the back, turned off the alarm and tried to open the door from the inside. That too didn't work. He then tried, with his driver, a black man, considerably larger than hisself, to force the door open. Concerned citizen, not a neighbor, worked for some Harvard publication, phones in the call.

Gates has a large number of friends who are black. Such friends include Oprah Winfrey (about whom he's written a book), Charles Ogletree, (who is representing him) and Cornel West. All of whom have the wherewithal to summer at the Vineyard, no doubt, but are hardly defined by that characteristic alone. I understand you're insistence that he not be termed a radical. OK. But in trying to tamp that push, you've pushed too far in the other direction.

At the time of the arrest, Skip Gates was suffering from a bronchial infection that affected his breathing... which is only pointed out to say, under those conditions, there's a limit to how 'uppity' and 'belligerent' a fella can git... 'Specially if he's short, nearing 60, walks with a cane and maybe hits 150 lbs soaking wet.

People are under the impression that Gates got 'uppity' because he used the phrase, "Do you know who I am?"... which, under most any other circumstances, can be translated as "Do you know who I think I am?"... but here translates to "Do you see the irony in profiling ME?" If I see a tall black man and challenge him to a game a hoops and he answers "Do you know who I am?" Well, if he's Kevin Garnett, then the question is legit, no... 'Cause I'm not Larry Bird.

Cop arrests wheezing, hobbling, senior citizen for 'disturbing the peace' and you try to see both sides... Hmm. The impulse to do that is commendable but, in this instance, counterproductive.

PPR_Scribe said...

I also wrote about testosterone and class being a much of this situation as race. But even more than that is the issue of State power. Forget the "teaching moment" about race. I know how that story will end. What about a national conversation about the powers and limits of our government towards its citizens? Especially following the fiasco to free society that was the GWB presidency.

Also, can we please stop characterizing a 58 year old man as a "senior citizen"? This request comes from someone almost in Dr. Gate's decade herself! LOL

williedynamite said...

Dead on article
After the smoke has cleared we are finding out that the truth lies somewhere in between Gates version and the officer version of the story. Perhaps they both had attitudes which made a situation which could have been resolved in a few minutes escalate into Gatesgate.
I also agree that this evolving into a case more about class and privilege than simply race.

Anonymous said...

I think the real key here to understanding what happened is to mark on the timeline of events when Prof. Gates was actually arrested.

According to the Police Report which is up on, Gates wasn't arrested until after he had shown Crowley his ID (thus proving his identity and that it was his house).

The reason why this is important is that by this point, Crowley's fellow officers had arrived on the scene (specifically Off. Carlos Figueroa).

And since Gates was continuing to verbally challenging Crowley in front of his peers (as well as a crowd of onlookers), it becomes obvious that Crowley basically arrested Gates for "contempt of cop".

That to me just shows that the whole confrontation was nothing more than two grown men having a "big dick" contest. That's inexcusable for both of them...

However, the big difference between Crowley and Gates is that Crowley is the public servant here! And that while Gates may have been unpleasant, Crowley is the one with the responsibility to use the power of his office judiciously.

No one likes being called out by someone else, but Crowley should have just "manned up" and walked away. But he couldn't do that however, because his ego got in the way of him being able to do his job properly. Thus President Obama was correct – he acted stupidly.

I don't think Crowley ever expected the Gates' arrest to stick. I think he just did it to try and put Gates "in his place". The ultimate one-up-manship. Call it "town vs. gown" politics. Or call it "racial profile". Regardless of the source, it’s the real injustice here…

-Bill the Lizard

Thelonious said...

Obama taught constitutional law. The teaching moment should be about the Fourth Amendment. That is if there are any copies of the Constitution left, since it was used as toilet paper for the last 8 years.

The professionalism of police work is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of this country's history, the police have been no better than thugs, who have been enlisted to protect the privilege and property of other thugs.