July 22, 2009

Aftermath of the Arrest: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis GatesThe arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. on that old canard, "disorderly conduct" has revealed once again the racial divide in this country--the fears of injustice of black men at the hands of the police and the unquestioning support of white men for the police/law enforcement. The blogosphere reflects this divide. White bloggers say Dr. Gates is playing the "race card" and Black bloggers claim racism.

I trust my intuition and how men behave.
When Dr. Gates and Sgt. James Crowley met in that room, it could have been merely the confrontation between two men: a proud professor and a wary police officer.

But things are never that simple.

I can understand the plight of the Sgt. Crowley. He had received a credible call from a neighbor who had seen these men breaking into a house. When they got there, Dr. Gates was simply an old black guy standing in house in the middle in Harvard? What was he doing there? Dr. Gates had to prove who he was. And no sudden moves.

Dr. Gates was tired. He had just come back from China. At every step of the way, he probably had to prove who he was (as he has done for all his life--as all pioneers have to do) and now he was home and being confronted in his own kitchen, in his own house by a white police officer who was asking him, "May I ask what you're doing here?"

There was, I suspect, no "Sir," no respect for the white hairs on the old man's head. There's a different tone that white officers use for white old men. And tone doesn't show up on a transcript.

Now things weren't simple. Now they weren't just man to man. They became black and white. And if I believe Dr. Gates' version of the events, it's not because I'm defending a "brother," it's because the police, who have guns, are always in charge and I simply cannot imagine Dr. Gates being a threat to anyone--except intellectually.

For this is a part of life in America that many whites do not understand--the daily humiliations of black men at the hands of the police. So what looks like a simple situation that could have been remedied by Dr. Gates being thankful for the police doing their job was probably exacerbated by the words and actions of a man who has every reason to be proud of his accomplishments, and a police officer, who once Dr. Gates spoke, should have realized that he was not dealing with just "another black man." I won't use the shorthand version of that phrase.

Then, everything blew up. What could have ended like this:

"Thank you, officer."
"Don't worry, Dr. Gates, these things happen every day. Have a nice day."
Both men laugh.

Ended with Dr. Gates being arrested.

No one will ever know what happened in that room between those two men. But I suspect the history of race relations (fear, mistrust, anger) came to a head, and Dr. Gates was hauled off to jail, as Michael Eric Dyson has said, for being "uppity." For it is perfectly reasonable for a white person, a white professor to ask for a name and a badge. But a black man? Go straight to Jail. Do not collect $200.

So what are we going to do?

There are no grand solutions to racism and the fears on both sides. It can not be done away with by laws or any other grand social schemes.
No, the solution in still waiting in that room where Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley met. Where we all meet every day to eat, drink, stand around the water cooler and look out at the each other--with fear in our eyes.


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Slice said...

It sounds like he was caught doing something he shouldn't. People don't get "loud" for no reason.

Geoffrey Philp said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Slice: "People don't get "loud" for no reason."

Rethabile said...


In my travels in that country, I must avoid ending up where I shouldn't end up.

Geoffrey Philp said...

True words, Rethabile. The only problem is that sometimes trouble comes looking for us in the unlikeliest of places.

FSJL said...

How dare he speak up in his own house. What does he think he is, a human being?

How dare Barack Obama take his side. Who does he think he is, President of the United States?

Fuzz said...

I heard an interview with the neighbour who made the call to the police. He said he didn't know or recognize the man trying to enter the home. He was surprised to learn that it was a prominent professor after the story hit the news.

Perhaps the whole incident could have been avoided if Americans took a little time to get to know their neighbours instead of isolating themselves in their castle houses and castle cars. While racial profiling is a serious problem in the United States, the effects of isolation and loneliness cannot be overlooked.

Rethabile said...

Yes, Fragano, how the heck dare he? And if I do make Atlanta this summer, let me give you a buzz (more like an email note). Geoffrey has got me drooling on Red Stripe.