Friday, July 24, 2009

residing while black

i was sitting in the living room watching chris matthews interview journalists, politicians, commentators, and university professors, and realized that my head hurt, i felt nauseous, and i'd started to shake.

after a few days of reading news articles, op ed pieces, and engaging with people on facebook as well as in person, i'd finally physically internalized the henry louis gates, jr. incident.

though unpremeditated, obama's initial reaction and follow up was perfect. he's done everything possible to discuss the racial state of the nation yet resist favoring the african-american population in his policies and statements. i think many af-ams understand how difficult this must be and acknowledge the internal struggle it's probably causing him as the first african-american president. his reaction to the gates incident is one of the most powerful examples of how the majority of af-ams feel about race-based profiling in general and the gates event in particular. the man who has done such a superior job at maintaining a primarily impersonal persona where race is concerned apparently couldn't help but let slip some actual feelings about a proven he's almost surely experienced himself.

so if the african-american president can't help but express frustration and anger, why wouldn't dr. gates react the way he did? people continue to say that the police had to do their job, and the arresting officer could not help but bring in gates. but the only obligations the officers had was to show up, determine identity and act accordingly. if the news reports are correct, gates's two forms of identification were not sufficient, and the police who are trained to keep their cool felt so insulted and threatened by his "tumultuous" behavior that they just had to make an arrest.

i'm heartsick. not surprised or shocked, but sick not only about the situation itself but about some of the reactions i've seen on the part of some white friends and acquaintances.

as chris matthews stated tonight:

imagine the situation reversed. harvard professor, henry kissinger, an older man wearing dress pants, wire-rimmed glasses, and a tucked in polo shirt...and apparently carrying a suspected to have broken into a house that's not his own by a neighbor who somehow has no idea he's living within view of her home. the officer who approaches him is african-american, and fails to communicate the reason for the police presence. he treats dr. kissinger like a suspect almost immediately and continues to question him even after he provides two forms of ID. kissinger is understandably frustrated and maybe even belligerent...the officer interprets his behavior as being "tumultuous", and apparently can't think of any other way to settle things but to arrest him.

nothing can convince me that much of white america's reaction to this scenario would be the same as to the one we have in front of us. people would be in disbelief that the neighbor didn't know that henry kissinger is a neighbor. his age would be cited. how could a neighbor or even the police think a neatly dressed older man with glasses had broken into a house, especially in such a small community? the idea that he was aggressive enough to warrant arrest would be highly doubted. and it's extremely difficult to believe that the african-american officer wouldn't be reprimanded and called overly aggressive. but, obviously, it's very doubtful that the vigilant neighbor would have been suspicious of a neatly dressed older white man, and the 911 call would almost certainly not have been made.

so we have gates who was exhausted after a flight from china and he can't get in his house so as any of us would do, he found a way in. he's inside and police officers show up at his home. from what i understand, instead of stating something to the effect of, "sir, we're here to respond to a 911 call," they ask him to come out of his house. he's a studied scholar and a black man as well and he knows what's going on. people still doubt that this kind of thing happens, but it does. he knows that his white neighbors wouldn't be treated the way he is and he's angry. this isn't a first time thing for him. people get fed up. fed up with deferring to police who are a little (or a lot) more rude, aggressive, arrogant, physical, and even liberal with arrests because the "suspect" is black. and it's so often justified. even perfectly progressive white people who fully understand that racism is still rampant have a difficult time facing it when it becomes evident, especially when subtleties are involved.

i do not believe that this is an issue of the white officer being a corrupt and awful man, and the accompanying black officer being a cowardly uncle tom. a piece i read today made the astute observation that one of the most dangerous and awful things about racism is that it can be so insidious. the bias becomes so internalized and so natural that sometimes even the people who perpetrate it have no idea that it's part of how they view and evaluate others' words and actions. the white officer probably had no conscious intention of treating gates differently than he would have a white person in his or her home. black officers aren't immune from this either. it's clear that there are black folks who buy into the idea that we just aren't as good citizens as others. but gates knew and a lot of black people know that this incident was not free of bias, however unconscious. and to think that at this point of his life he's still vulnerable in this way has to be absolutely maddening.

there are some who are of the opinion that while this happens to black people all the time, especially men, dr. gates's situation is garnering an unreasonable amount of attention. but part of his anger is due to the fact that if you're black you are susceptible no matter what. who can ignore the irony of profiling and arresting "the nation's most famous black scholar" who holds a professorship at Harvard where he's Director of the Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research?

i'm asking people to consider that being questioned by the police might not feel the same to a law-abiding black man as it does to a law-abiding white man who has never felt threatened by the police and has never been, or known someone who's been, targeted because of his race. consider that while you might see this as a sanitized event...two individuals engaging in a silly mix-up, perhaps...that to someone who knows the "routine", to be profiled about entering your own home might be humiliating especially when you've provided what the police need to be satisfied. looking to the example of henry kissinger, i can imagine the police simply checking his ID and leaving...perhaps grumbling about the crazy old guy who got overly excited when he was questioned.

what many of us don't get is that while equal, black people and white people in this country are not the same. we have different experiences. black folks make jokes about "driving while black" but who actually believes that we think it's funny? that our brothers, sons, fathers, uncles are often targeted, frightened, humiliated. rendered powerless? this shapes us, and it affects our tolerance levels. i've seen my mother being watched when we go into a store. admittedly, i've been highly embarrassed when she does this, but she'll call the clerk or owner on it, announce that she's never coming back, and then leave. when a white couple first moved to my mom's street, the husband asked her repeatedly if she actually lived on the block. it was if he just couldn't process that my mother is an actual homeowner here. and i could stake my life on the fact that if she were in gates's position that officer would have heard a lot more than he did from gates.

what's ultimately heartbreaking as i research and peruse the Net is having to see mug shots of dr. henry louis gates whose work i've read in numerous courses. granted, mug shots always make me profoundly sad. but i've found myself getting teary seeing his, knowing that even though the charges against him were dropped, he was handcuffed, hauled away and those images will never go away. it shouldn't happen to anyone regardless of their position. but how frightening it is to truly realize that even a world-renowned scholar is vulnerable like the rest of us. if this can happen to him, one can only imagine what other targeted black people must endure.

No comments:

Post a Comment