Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Dark Side of Our "Post-racial" Society

The Disorderly Conduct of the Henry Louis Gates Case
By E.N. Jackson
Copyright 2009 E.N. Jackson
Frost Illustrated Newspaper, Inc. Vol. 41, Issue 31

The historic election of America's first black president has brought to life the nightmare I feared it would: an intense backlash against anyone who dares to reject the notion that we are living in a "post-racial" society.

For those of us, both black and white, who continue to speak out against bigotry and injustice in our country, this is a very dangerous time; a time in which people are expected to sit down, shut up, and pretend that the racial bias, sexism, classism, and homophobia they see and experience each and every day has suddenly disappeared. Why? Because America has elected a black president.

But just ask noted Harvard professor and African-American historian and scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates if we are living in a "post-racial" society and I'm sure his answer would be an unequivocal “No!” When Dr. Gates wrote, produced, and hosted the ground-breaking documentary "The Two Nations of Black America" exploring issues of racial and class bias, I wonder if he could have ever predicated that he would one day find himself smack dab in the middle of a controversy that calls into question some of the very issues he raised in the film.

On July 16, Gates was questioned under suspicion of breaking and entering. The location he was supposedly breaking into was his own home. How did this happen? A neighbor called 911 and reported seeing two black males attempting to break into a home several doors down from hers. She told Cambridge police that she saw "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry." (source: Associated Press). How any reasonable minded person can, as Huffington Post columnist Brandon Terry put it, "confuse a nearly sixty year old bespectacled professor with a blue blazer who cannot walk without the aid of a cane with a crafty black burglar practicing his illicit deeds at 12:30 PM in the afternoon" escapes my powers of logic. Nonetheless, the neighbor in question felt completely justified in notifying the police about the black man attempting to burglarize a home; and as it turns out, the home being “burgled” belonged to Gates who had just returned from an overseas trip and was having trouble getting his jammed front door unlocked.

Ultimately, none of us will know the full extent of what happened on Dr. Gates's porch that afternoon, but in a nutshell, it seems that when the police arrived at Gates's home he explained the situation and expected that to be the end of it. However, the officer questioning Gates demanded to see ID. Gates protested and initially refused to show ID, but eventually did show his Harvard ID. Unfortunately, the incident still did not end there. In fact, the incident did not end until tempers had flared, words had been exchanged, and Gates had been arrested for what the Cambridge police called "disorderly conduct,” or, as columnist Brandon Terry calls it, for "failure of a black man to show proper deference to a white police officer." In Terry's mind, and indeed the minds of many trying to break this unthinkable incident down into mentally digestible pieces, the situation is clear. Terry stated: "Gates's refusal to be humiliated in his own home and [his] insistence on calling the incident what it was – racial profiling – was more than anything, a direct challenge to the fragile hierarchy of superiority and propriety that Officer Crowley attempted to enforce." It is important to note that charges have since been dropped; however, the damage done to Dr. Gates's psyche and reputation will not so easily go away.

Almost as disturbing as the incident itself are the reactions around the net to the incident. Post after post exposes the racial animosity so many Americans still feel in our supposedly post-racial society toward Gates and minorities in general. In her article "Race Today: Comments on the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates," Huffington Post blogger Martha St. Jean gave a few examples of the passionate resistance many Americans have been exhibiting to the characterization of the Gates incident as racial profiling. St. Jean quotes one poster as saying on Boston.com: "Enough of throwing down the race card ... we have a Black President now, so that tired old ship has sailed. The guy got indignant like any self-important Harvard professor does, pulled the old "Do you know who I am?" routine, and got arrested as a result." (source: Huffington Post.com).

Another poster stated on Gates’s website, The Root.com: "Black america like white america has to use common sense and tell the professor very clealry he was in the wrong for shouting at the officer, making a quick judgement of race being used against him and act like an adult professional should act like. Talking calmly and intelligently and willing to cooperate to the questions of the concerned officer doing his job would have avoided this altogather. He should then appollogize for his wrongfull treatment to the officer and thank him for responding to a 911 call that might have been his last. If this professor is not willing to man up to this and black america refuses to tell him he was wrong. Blacks will continue to be at bay, only due to their own arrogance. P.S. my daughter is married to a kind intelligent black man and he aggrees with this concerned point. It's not always about color. Treat others with respect and you will almost always get it back.." (Source: Huffington Post.com).

While the tone of these two posts differ, the intent and the purpose are, in my opinion, the same: blacks need to get off their hot-headed, arrogant high horses, stop playing the "race card," play by the rules like everyone else, show "proper" deference and respect (even when being challenged about your identity and your right to be in your own home), and forget about all this racism stuff. This assumes that Dr. Gates responded inappropriately when the truth is none of us were there. It also assumes that a person of another ethnicity in the same situation would have responded differently and correctly. It further assumes that minorities whose rights have been clearly violated have no cause to feel, much less show, something as human as anger and indignation, and this is perhaps the most damaging assumption in this case because it strips minorities of their full humanity and perpetuates the mentality which states that if you are a minority then no matter what is happening to you, you must not forget your proper place.

It is a frightening reality that what mattered most to those Cambridge police officers who arrested Dr. Gates was not his academic pedigree, his Harvard professorship, his McArthur Fellowship, his upper middle class status, his position as Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, his documentaries, his books, his awards and accolades, nor that he was once named one of the top 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine. None of this came into play as he dared to show outrage at being accused of breaking into his own home. Sadly, many minorities cannot help but see the Gates incident as more proof that even in this supposedly post-racial society, no person of color, regardless of education level or economic status, is safe from being caught in the cross-hairs of racial bias, just as no woman or GLBT person is safe from the cross-hairs of sexism, classism, and homophobia.

The idealist in me fervently and sincerely hopes to live long enough to see the day that America does become a fully post-racial society. In fact, I hope to look back at this time and be able to say that I was active in the mass movement of raised consciousness that will usher in a new era of unity, peace, and understanding among ethnicities, cultures, and genders. But the realist in me cannot deny, ignore, or in any way diminish a very simple fact: the longer we continue to categorize human beings by their skin color, gender, economic status, or sexual identity - and then use those constructed categories to determine how people will be treated and who will receive rights, freedoms, and resources (and to what extend they will receive them) - the longer we will delay the coming of this post-racial society in which so many of us yearn to live.

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