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Friday, July 24, 2009

"Why? Because I'm a black man in America."

That quote is from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Harvard University professor, accusing a police officer Sgt. James Crowley of racism during a robbery investigation.

Gates was trying to pry open the front door of his home in Cambridge, Mass, when an onlooker called 911.

With all due respect, Dr. Gates, I think it's a bit more complicated than that.

I've been listening to some interesting, if not difficult, conversations among some of my Black professional friends.

Emotions are running high. Very high.

After all, the news has not been very good in the past few weeks or so. Black men, even college-educated black men, are losing jobs in the Northeast at a much higher rate than everyone else.

This incident comes on the heels of African-American and Latino children being disinvited from a suburban Philadelphia swimming pool just last week.

Police profiling and the stereotype of black men as criminals are still very real, even if there are African-American men in power in the White House, Massachusetts, and New York.

By all accounts, the Cambridge Police Department is known for not arresting or not incarcerating people unless necessary. Cambridge is, after all, a very progressive place. If you can't 'talk someone down' in that town, it can't be done.

President Obama attempted to cool things down by calling Crowley and Gates and inviting them to the White House for a beer. He said the incident was an overreaction on both sides.

That has only served to produce even more reaction - and overreaction - on all sides. In his remarks on Monday, the usual conciliatory tone he strikes was missing. He said the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, "acted stupidly".

Unfortunately, President Obama stuck his finger into a hornet's nest where race, poverty and class buzz angrily inside.

I'm reminded of the film 'Prom Night in Mississippi' which has been running on HBO. It's the documentary of the 2007 first integrated Senior Prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi. Oscar-winning performer, Morgan Freeman, had offered to pay for the prom a decade earlier on one condition: that the Prom be fully integrated.

His offer was largely ignored. Ten years later, his offer was taken, but his generosity ends up fanning flames of racism among several generations of Charleston residents. It's a fascinating if not painful study of the complex nature of race and class and the process of social transformation.

However, it is this article, "Skip Gates, please sit down," written by "a Phantom Negro," which has many of my friends in serious, difficult, sometimes painful conversation.

The author says that what we are seeing here is what he calls "The Ivy League Effect".

Here's the quote that seems to be most troublesome to some of my friends:

As a black Ivy Leaguer, something funny happens as you become ensconced in ivy. You’re smart enough to understand that race and racism are a reality you deal with on a daily basis, but you also know that your university ID sets you apart.

Does this mean you are kept from hurtful incidents? No, but it is to say that much of the outrage felt at a racial slight is replaced by outrage at a class slight. Sure, we get pissed, knowing we’re getting hassled because we’re black, but the real indignation comes from being hassled as members of an elite group. How dare you hassle me? I go to school here. I go to work here.

That second part of the thought is always present. I go to school here. I go to work here. When the Ivy League Effect is going full tilt, our black compass gets confused; the realities we know to exist become other people's problems.

And then there's this:

Skip Gates thought that he’d worked hard enough, achieved enough, become Harvard enough that this sort of treatment did not apply to him. And now, rather than channel that outrage in a way that is subtle but effective, he’s very publicly suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, having "joined the ranks of the million incarcerated black men in America."

That’s laughable. He does not see those million men as kin and he doesn’t, by and large, give a damn about those guys. He’s merely annoyed that such an irritation as police misconduct found its way into his home. If he read about this story happening to a plumber in Roxbury, he’d shake his head in disappointment and then go on with his life.

So before we heed the call of racism, let’s be mindful of the tower from which that call came. This has something to do with race. But it has a lot more to do with messing with Skip Gates.

The Ivy League Effect, people. The Ivy League Effect.

I only know this much to be true: life is much more complicated at the intersection of the various prejudices. I know this because I am a woman who shares her life with another woman. I know this because the women of color I know who are also lesbian suffer a different, more complicated form of prejudice than I and my beloved.

I remember, several years ago, that the conventional wisdom in the LGBT community was that it would be a gay man who would be elected to the episcopacy before a woman. And, it would be a white gay man at that.

Why? The reasoning went that a lesbian represented two issues - sexism and homophobia - which were more powerful together than the "ick" factor of dealing with a white, gay man. Two issues - any two issues - would be two too many, went the forecast.

Obviously, that prediction has proven correct. And yet . . . the first woman to be elected bishop in the Anglican Communion was none other than Barbara Clementine Harris. If you hadn't noticed, she's not only a woman, she's black.

Life is not only complicated at the intersection of race, poverty and class, it can become dangerous. It does not take much to rip off the scab that has formed over the scars of racism.

It doesn't take much to inflame the ancient, unseen but very present scars of slavery.

It will be interesting to watch as the events unfold over the next few days - how much our ethnically diverse / black President can help to bring about reconciliation at the intersection of three such volatile issues.

As a white lesbian woman, I just hate the way this feels - primarily because I feel left out of the conversation. Or, at least, unable to participate in or impact the dialogue in a meaningful way.

Here's where it's at for me: On another whole level, this feels like a 'guy thing'. It feels like it's a part of the social construct of the dominant male power paradigm.

When I get to this emotional level of social discourse, my mother-stuff (Vice Principal) kicks in. What I really want to do is to take both men by the ears and trot their asses into the President's (Principal's) office and keep them there until they find a way to shake hands and figure out how they are going to live in the same neighborhood with their perceptions of their own unique power base intact.

Hear me clearly: that is NOT to diminish the important issues of race and class. It is to say that it is also complicated by issues of perception of different forms of power - specifically, male power.

Mixed in and among the tangle of issues is the classic battle pitting the power of the sword (Crowley) over the power of the pen (Gates).

It's just to say that we've almost completed the first decade of the third millennium. There are many battles for justice that have been hard fought and well won.

We've come farther along than this. We are at least clearer about what the issues are. And, if we know that, we have a better chance to come to a more positive resolve.

C'mon people. We can work this out.

If The Episcopal Church can make its way through the volatile issues of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, the rest of the country can navigate the intersection of race, class and poverty.

Can't we?


Anonymous said...

Well said, Elizabeth. This is a very complicated situation.

As a male (and an Ivy Leaguer), my sense is that this is less about race than about male egos. Each threatened the power and authority of the other. As your cartoon suggests, this was a deadly intersection of two powerful men, each expecting respect and deference - and rightly so - but when disrespect was shown by each to each, the situation escalated beyond control, and both men were caught up in their egos.

As a one-time lawyer, I recall being stopped for speeding (too often, I'm afraid), and having a flash of righteous indignation at the affront to my power and authority. The urge to proclaim, "do you know who I am?" welled within.

Ann said...

Cambridge and Harvard are as racist as many places and more than some -- a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School was detained by police when he ran across the yard late for class. He did not have his student i.d. with him. His only offense - running while black. No white student would experience this.

WilliamK said...

I think the article from which you quoted seriously misrepresents Dr. Gates and his committments. I noted, in particular, this assertion:

He does not see those million men as kin and he doesn’t, by and large, give a damn about those guys.

I wonder how the author of the piece knows this about Dr. Gates? My experience of Gates' writing and activism is quite otherwise: he cares deeply about working-class black men.

What I see in this article is just another example of anti-intellectualism, wherein the significance of Gates' experience and witness is dismissed because of his educational status.

What happened to Gates actually serves quite well to reveal how deep and persistent racism is: even someone like Gates can suffer mistreatment because of the color of his skin... and that, indeed, is what happened.

Karen said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

it's margaret said...

Ummm --I think you hit the nail on the head. It's a male power thang. I understand that the Officer the Professor and the President will be meeting for beer.... I think the Officer's power thang will be trumped in that crowd --and it won't have a thing to do with race....

The interesting thing in this mix that is not being spoken of --the well-meaning (?) neighbor who made the 911 call.... that is where the racial profiling began. Then when the Professor and the Officer went at it --that is where the power thang took hold.

I think the person who did not recognize their own neighbor, --THAT is the person who needs to be invited to beer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Racism, like sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, ageism, etc. are toxins in the cultural ether. We inhale them all the time. I wake up every morning and have to confess my own sexism and heterosexism before I can get to confessing my racism.

Having said that, I've lived in NYC, Newark, NJ. Boston and Cambridge, MA, Baltimore, MD, and Portland, ME and I must say that, comparatively speaking, Cambridge is NOT anywhere near racist as the rest of the country.

Of course, situations such as the one you describe happened in the late 80s when you were there. I can promise you, that wouldn't happen now.

By many, many accounts, black and white, male and female, this whole situation got blown waaayyy out of proportion.

Let's hope it settles down soon.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

WilliamK - hhmmm.... 'anit-intellectualism'? An interesting point. Thanks for that.

Marcia King said...

Hi Elizabeth: Interesting analysis. I would agree that this seems more a power struggle than racism (at this point.)

It also seems to be a situation whipped up into a frenzy by the media (being fanned of course by Dr. Gates and now Pres Obama.) The idea of the two "combatants" sitting down over a cup of coffee (or a beer/glass of wine) to listen to each other's POV is a good one. Much better than continue to toss grenades in the press.

PS Goodnight Gracie

Joanna Depue said...

I grew up in Chatham, just 2 doors down from St. Paul's, on the corner of N.Hillside Ave. In THOSE days, black folk came into town to clean houses or work @ the old William Pitt restaurant - then got back on the train or bus to Morristown, Newark .. even Madison. Not one Jewish soul lived in that town. Things have changed in some hamlets (thank God), but pockets of fear, displaced anger, stereotypes and 'pulling rank' exist everywhere. My heart is grieved over this particular series of events, but moreso because this is not an isolated case ...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow, Marcia King - if you and I can find something to agree on, there IS hope for the world. Umm, okay, maybe not the Whole World but at least this particular situation.

Mornin', Gracie

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Well, I didn't know that you were practically kin! Yes, TBTG, Chatham has changed quite a bit in the 7.5 years I've been here. Not enough for my blood but more than enough for some of the old timers.

We had a Reconstructionist Synagogue in Chatham for a while - they used our church space - but now they have their own temple in nearby Summit, right over the Chatham line.

Check this out: We have women in full burkas sitting under the umbrella at the Municipal Pool as their children swim.

Whenever I see them, I have to pinch myself to remember that I'm in Chatham.

Bill said...

When stories such as this are written about a police officer and a citizen having words instead of a white male police officer and a black male professor, then I'll know we're making headway. But that means that the press will have to lock away all the gender and race adjectives they're so fond of using.

The story about the on looker calling 911 is not a problem in my opinion. If someone is trying to pry open a door, regardless of being white, black, blue or red, that constitutes suspicious behavior.

Paul (A.) said...

"Ivy League Effect" notwithstanding, one point seemingly overlooked in all the hoo-hah is the idea that this particular policeman constructed a pretext for an arrest by luring Professor Gates out of his house onto the "public" porch in order to effect an arrest for "loud and tumultuous" public disturbance.

Whether or not race played a significant part in the way events unfolded, primary blame should be directed to male egos and the deviance that comes from power.

JCF said...

Something that's been entirely missing from this story is ANY notion of just who Henry Louis "Skip" Gates is---beyond "prominent Harvard professor."

Skip Gates isn't some angry bomb-thrower (Emphatically, he ISN'T Jeremiah Wright!). He's a sophisticated and sensitive analyst of America's racial past (and present). Most importantly, he's got a good sense of humor, and it's on display w/ white people as much as w/ black people. [I'm picturing him chatting delightedly w/ his Irish tour-guide, when his search for his roots took him back to the Emerald Isle! ;-)]

[NB: all my knowledge of Gates comes through TV and books. I've never met him.]

...this is all by way of saying that I have little reason to distrust him [And in the NPR account I first heard about this, Gates had already called the Campus Police, about his door being jammed, BEFORE Officer Crowley showed up. He was prepared for a POSITIVE experience of policing, not ready to go off on the first Boy in Blue!]

Point #2: I shouldn't have to say this---I should just assume that from all the zillions of stories of black men hassled by the police, y'all should just believe that 99.9% are true...

...but there's that tiny voice that says "White people routinely dismiss what black people say---at least when it conflicts w/ their worldview."

Ergo I, white person, offer this:

Ten years ago, my then-husband and I moved to a small Midwestern town (the town I still live in).

The first day we were here in town---the FIRST DAMN DAY---we were pulled over. Seems that my husband (who just happened to be African-American) "fit a profile." That's all---and I was there to witness it.

Wanna guess the race of the officer?

Lord have mercy!

MarkBrunson said...

The problem is more than race, sex, religion - it's difference. We all hate that which is different, fear it, try to keep it away - all of us. Often, the degree of difference is what decides who hates whom.

I'm a white male, so, I'm right "in there" with other white males, until they found out I'm gay, then I'm far less hated than a straight black man. Blacks, having suffered discrimination, do not - and I can assure you of this from direct experience - do not have any problem with completely dissociating and categorizing their struggle for "human rights" as separate from the gay struggle for "special rights."

I'm never particularly impressed by claims of racism. Racism is behind all human mistreatment because the race that we all hate most and best is the human race. It's the only one that we can see as same enough to be different enough to threaten us. Time to look at the true reflection of that ugliness. All the other "-isms" are simply symptoms, a leper picking at scabs.

Mary Sue said...

As a white lesbian woman, I just hate the way this feels - primarily because I feel left out of the conversation. Or, at least, unable to participate in or impact the dialogue in a meaningful way.

This to me is the most telling part of the whole post--- WHY do you feel it's necessary for you to participate in the conversation?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary Sue - Umm . . because I'm white and racism is, ultimately, my problem.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, and because I'm a Christian.