Last Tuesday, while I was on vacation in New Hampshire, sitting on the front porch of my wife's family's lakehouse contemplating the stillness of the water, warm coffee in hand, my peace was disturbed by the front page of the Boston Globe arriving like a dive-bombing pigeon, low over my shoulder and into my lap, dropped there by my father-in-law. He didn't say anything, he just pointed and with that gesture a new character in the public drama that is our national life was introduced. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
If somehow you have missed out on the action, perhaps you too were on vacation, in a place even more remote than where I was hiding out, I'll fill you in. Dr. Gates is a well respected Harvard scholar who was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday, July 16, after police responded to a 911 call reporting a possible break-in at the residence. Turns out it was a break-in, kind of. Gates was returning home from a trip to China when he found that his front door was stuck. He asked his chaeuffer for assistance and the driver joined him on the porch and both tried, forcefully, to open the door.
And, in the house next door, a concerned neighbor phoned 911 to report what looked to her like an attempted break-in. The Cambridge police responded and this is where it gets interesting.
Also, before I go any further, now's probably a good time to note that Dr. Gates is African-American, as was his driver.
So the police officer showed up (he's pretty famous now too, Sergeant James Crowley is his name and, fyi, he's white) and demanded to see identification. To which Gates responded, allegedly, something to the effect of, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?"
As you might expect, and probably should already know by now, this set off a firestorm that reached all the way up to President Obama who initially commented that the Cambride police had "acted stupidly" and who later apologized for apparently saying the word "stupidly" and has since gone on to invite both men, Gates and Crowley, to the White House for some beer and reconciliation.
The question is, is this incident evidence that everybody jumped the gun with all this "post-racial America" stuff (did we need evidence? did anyone really believe it anyway?) or, alternatively, are we dealing with nothing more than a couple of hot-heads?
After reading an editorial entitled "Machismo and the Gates incident" in the Boston Globe, I actually tend to think that the latter may be more true than most people, on either side, care to admit. The main point that the columnist, Joan Vennochi, makes is that in addition to any race factors that are at play here, and she doesn't suggest that there are none, what appears to have really happened is that two people who are used to garnering a certain amount of respect and who have come to expect it, a high-profile Harvard professor and a police sergeant, felt they were not afforded the appropriate recognition of their respective positions. She concludes by saying, "When it happens to a black man, racism may be the easy explanation, but that doesn’t make it the only explanation. Life and power in 21st-century America are more complicated than that."
But this incident led my brother-in-law (a youth pastor, my church-cred) and I to muse on one other aspect of the kind of racism and prejudice that definitely still exists in "post-racial America," a form of racism that, it seems, was on display here. That is, we may actually be post-skin color discrimination in this country but what we are still very much dealing with is the baggage we've assigned to different races.
Probably nobody (or, hopefully, at least not many people) hate or discriminate just because of the way a person looks, but rather for the set of expectations they have associated with a particular skin color. Certainly Professor Gates' appearance was not threatening but, perhaps, Sergeant Crowley carries with him unfair associations that led to him approaching the situation with a different, more hostile attitude. Perhaps also I do, and you too.
We're not post-racial. We may be different-racial, but probably that's not even entirely true; skin color, I think, has been the excuse for a long time. It is the excuse for a fear of what is different and foreign, it is the excuse for long-held stereotypes and associations that are easier to bury then to risk being free of and becoming that much more vulnerable. It is the excuse that must be extinguished if we are ever to become post-acted-stupidly.
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