Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Henry Louis Gates Incident Shows There's Still Work to Do
REVISED - July 27, 2009. As more information comes out on this, I find that I have been guilty of the very thing that so many others do: I jumped to judgment on the circumstances of this incident. While I admit that this post was simply my musings on what had happened, I shouldn't have jumepd to certain conclusions below about the woman who called the police and the events surrounding this incident. So while I stated in the original posting that I expected more from the country, I should also expect more from myself.
ORIGINAL POST - Here we are, July 23, 2009, and I'm disappointed - for I expected more from our country.
Nine years into the 21st century, I was optimistic (perhaps naive is a better word) that we had finally turned the page on race relations in this country. With the election of President Obama in November of last year, I thought that perhaps the dream of such leaders as Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois was finally realized. If we could have a black president, perhaps things were in fact getting better, and the differences of our past were at long last being put aside.
And then we heard that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested under very questionable circumstances, and my optimism was quickly tempered with a big dose of reality. Like millions of Americans, I wasn't there and can only rely on what I hear and read in the news, but it seems to me that misperception played a role in this incident from beginning to end. Someone saw a black man trying to get into a house, and they assumed he was a burglar. The police arrived and ultimately arrested someone who they astonishingly seemed to perceive as another angry black man - not a professor from Harvard, the rightful tenant of the home, and a resident of that particular Cambridge neighborhood.
Truthfully, I can't say that I would have reacted any differently than Professor Gates were I in his situation; if a policeman is standing in my house holding two different forms of identification proving that I live there - and yet I still am not believed - then I'm pretty sure I'd be angry as well. The difference is, sadly, that I don't think I as a white man would be arrested for yelling ("disorderly conduct," as the Cambridge police report reads). Granted, there should be a certain amount of discretion displayed by anyone dealing with a person who wears a gun on their hip, but this incident seems to strike me as absurd.
I'm impressed by what I've heard about how Professor Gates is responding to this: he will use the incident as the impetus to explore the continuing difficulties for blacks in this country. To his credit, he will be putting this issue squarely back in the public spotlight so that we can continue to confront a national relationship that should be all rights be in much better shape than it is at this late date.
I've always admired the work Gates has done during his career, and the series of specials he has put together for PBS exploring the ancestry of famous men and women of black and Asian ancestry (he had just returned from China exploring the past of Yo Yo Ma when this occurred) has been first-rate. Despite the tragedy of what took place on a quiet Massachusetts street, I think he will turn this into another teaching tool - and it is a lesson to which we would all be well-served to pay attention, to consider, and to discuss in a very serious manner.