Monday, July 27, 2009

Is America a color-blind society after the election of Barack Obama?
My first reaction to watching the unfolding Saga of Skip Gates's Cambridge Arrest was that America's postracial bubble, like its recent economic troubles, was about to pop. The fact that some observers had never bought into the story of a race-free America purged of its past sins by a watershed presidential election had done little to diminish either that narrative's moral resonance or political weight.

Since America's racial disparities remain as deep-rooted after Barack Obama's election as they were before, it was only a matter of time until the myth of post-racism exploded in our collective national face. That they would rear their ugly head in the form of an intellectual and racial cause célèbre is fitting, since Black scholars and activists have been engaged in a robust debate over the meaning of race in the Age of Obama.

Suddenly Obama's recent declaration before the NAACP—that American Blacks have come farther than at any other time in our country's history—seems suspect, our national progress undone by the fact that Gates's predicament has become a metaphor for the nation's legacy of racial discrimination.

Our euphoria over Obama's historic election as the nation's first Black president hit an unexpected speed bump in Cambridge, Mass., home to the bastion of academic decorum, of all places. The arrest on July 16 of Doctor Henry Louis Gates,the prominent Harvard professor of African-American studies, in his own home has sparked a media firestorm that has interrupted the growing national consensus that America has been writing a new chapter in its tortured racial history.

Fresh from filming his latest PBS documentary in China, the 58-year-old Professor Gates found himself locked out of his well-appointed Harvard home. With the help of his African-American taxi driver, Gates successfully entered his house—but not before arousing a suspicious neighbor, who phoned the police. What happened next is the subject of competing accounts.

The police report characterizes Professor Gates as an academic turned thug: loud, rude, uncooperative, and menacingly dangerous after being asked to produce identification. Gates has countered with an entirely different scenario, one wherein he obligingly showed his Harvard identification only to be met with rude behavior. After asking for and being refused the officer's badge number, Gates was arrested. Why several police officers were needed to secure a nearly 60-year-old man who relies on a cane to get around is one of many questions asked in ensuing days.

Like a bright, streaking comet, Gates's arrest has made its way around blogs, newspaper columns, Web sites, TV shows, Twitter, and via good old-fashioned word of mouth. Not long after the 20th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee's controversial and racially charged film, Do the Right Thing, the urbane, Ivy League educated Gates, perhaps the most important and distinguished black academic of his generation, suddenly found himself a graybearded stand-in for Lee's doomed character Radio Raheem, whose assault by New York City police officers leads to the film's still powerful denouement.

Part of this story's momentum rests with Gates's public persona. Known as a bridge-builder between Black scholars and white liberals, Professor Gates is the pre-eminent scholar-entrepreneur of his generation; one of the architects of a revitalized African-American-studies discipline, who has successfully built networks between academe and business, politics, culture, and the media. If this can happen to Skip Gates, whose investment in the American Dream has carried him to the highest levels of the nation, then what chance does an ordinary Black person stand?

A shaken Gates has publicly expressed outrage and shock about his arrest but found newfound empathy and solidarity with the plight of ordinary Black people, whose encounters with the criminal-justice system rarely end with all charges dropped, as in Gates's case. Nor do they become national and international news stories. Television coverage coincided with Gates's sharing his story on July 22 on CNN's "Black in America 2." Later that evening—at a news conference on health care, where he received a question about the professor's recent arrest—President Obama chimed in to let Gates know he had his back.

The Gates incident illustrates the complex overlap between race and class (a working-class white policeman and one of the country's most celebrated scholars who is Black and now is forced to confront his blackness squarely in the mirror; blog and radio comments that sometimes carry an undercurrent of resentment at the privileged life of this particular Black man). The silver lining to the entire sordid affair is the long-delayed opportunity to draw sustained attention to the interwoven problems of race, structural poverty, and the criminal-justice system—a project that Gates himself has publicly committed to pursue.

The story's race and class dynamics are complicated. Gates is well-connected enough to have the President of the United States refer to him as a friend, yet Black enough to be racially profiled in his own home. The plight of tens of thousands of ordinary Black men and women, sometimes educated, more often not, remains invisible and thus far more vulnerable.

The Gates controversy pulled Obama into his first major racial storm since the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. wrangle. At his news conference, Obama responded that anyone would be angry, the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," and that America had a long history of racial profiling. Police unions expressed disappointment, while civil-rights activists loudly applauded his words. (Obama later said that he "could have calibrated" the wording of his intial reaction differently, and that both Gates and the Cambridge police may have overreacted.)

The arrest may very well be remembered as an unexpected turning point in our national conversation about race. That dialogue, of course, progresses only in fits and starts, occasioned as often by racial turmoil as by racial triumph. President Obama's rise to power elicited genuine excitement and emotion among Americans and citizens of the world about the thrilling possibilities of democracy. It also gave credence to a larger narrative, one supported by the symbolic evidence of Obama's election, that racism was dead. The story was all the more compelling since the vestiges of Jim Crow and lynching are, for many people, something only to be read about in history books or viewed in documentaries.

The story also proved to be dangerous.

An overwhelming number of Black people continue to reside on the margins of society, a permanent underclass seemingly fated to violent and early death, incarceration, poverty, and disease. Inadvertently, the public images of President Obama and, until recently at least, Professor Gates, supported the narrative of a postracial America. After all, how could a country where a Black man can become president and another be one of Harvard's most powerful professors be racist?

Perhaps the final lesson to be learned from all of this, one that Gates himself seemed to acknowledge, is that for all of America's racial progress, and in spite of the very real class divisions within the Black community, race retains stubborn political and social bonds among Black people that require shared affinity, identification, and sacrifice. Even in the Age of Obama (or perhaps especially in the Age of Obama), the struggle for racial and economic justice remains fraught. The Gates incident has become a new metaphor for America's still-tormented racial politics. More than a century ago, the black scholar and civil-rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois explained that African-Americans were too often seen as "problems" to be studied, discarded, lynched, or ignored, but never as full-blooded human beings whose progress remained vital to the success of the nation's democratic experiment. If this controversy helps to spur a national conversation about race and democracy, one that unblinkingly examines the persistence of Black poverty and incarceration even as it exults in Obama's election, then we will at least inch forward on the long road toward racial maturity, where the idea of a postracial American future remains an unrealizable but worthy goal rather than a political fait accompli.

(By Peniel E. Joseph) He is an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt and Company, 2006). His new book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, will be published in January by Basic Books.

(Dr. L. Kelly sees this incident from a slightly different perspective.)
There is more than race at work here. There is the identification of much of America (and especially white America) with the police, the military, and any and all symbols of institutionalized authority. I find it most fitting that an African-American male should be in the media limelight for doing nothing more than challenging a cop. We as a country and as a culture are far too deferential to the police. We should routinely ask them to identify themselves and to explain themselves. The nexus between something like a "ruling class" and the police/military establishment is nothing new, nor unique to this culture. It was obviously pervasive in, for example, El Salvador when Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in 1980--but that is only one more high-visibility incident, while many, many more cases go unnoticed or unaddrressed in many cultures. This nexus between police power and economic power is the real problem, and institutionalized racism is only one way that it plays out--although arguably the most insidious and offensive. I say, congratulations to both Gates and Obama for telling it like it is. Obama has no reason to apologize for his comments (and he has not actually retracted them or apologized for them). Gates is to be lauded for his willingness to challenge arbitrary authority, in the same way that he has made a life-long challenge to arbitrary economic and social disparities. It is a shame that only the challenge of a well-known and relatively wealthy African-American male is the one that gets media attention and the interest of an entire culture. This sort of thing happens every day to less advantaged persons of all racial and cultural backgrounds. I have yet to hear the policeman apologize. Perhaps he did. Apologies from authority figures are, in any case, extraordinarily rare. We should all challenge authority and not merely racism. Challenge authority because there is a moral imperative to do so, but do remember the list of martyrs who died because they did precisely that. Institutionalized authority by its nature does not like to be challenged, which is all the more reason that it must be. (Landrum Kelly, Jr., Ph.D. Chair, Department of History and Political Science Livingstone College) (Yes, I am seen as a "white" guy at a "Black" institution, but my forebears were Cherokee and Irish who also knew the force of institutionalized reation against those who were different.)



Blogger ichbinalj said...

anonymous wrote:
Racism will forever remain a chronic problem like a disease that can be hopefully managed but never cured. This event is a tragic wake up call of one step forward but two steps back. The reality is that racism is always there, always and we must remain forever watchful although it is so very tiring to be on guard each and every day. The weight that most minorities carry everyday is real and heavy and it takes a tremendous toll. Do you think that this would ever happen to a white professor being approached in his own home by a group of African American policemen? I think not.I bet that someone of the same stature as Dr. Gates in white skin would have easily been identified by any officer, be they African American, White, Hispanic etc.. The shame of it is that they were not even aware of who he was.I mean you think they would have recognized him in a few seconds. Perhaps if he would have been a sports figure the face would have been more familiar to them. That of course is tragic.

4:20 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Does anyone think (or has anyone responsibly argued) that the Obama election is evidence that we are now in a "race free America"? It was a watershed event, to be sure, but, it many ways, it simply underscored that race continues to be a salient feature of the American landscape. Indeed, given the context of the 2008 election -- a tremendously unpopular incumbent, eight years of Republican control of the White House, a challenger with a huge financial war chest, etc. -- it is surprising that Obama didn't win much more handily. That he did not is strong evidence that race continues to matter -- a lot. Rather than building (and then tearing down) a straw man, we should focus on assesing what the Gates incident (and, more importantly, the reaction to it) says about our evolving struggle with racial consciousness.

4:29 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

There is a problem, I think, that makes the interwoven issues of class and race trickier yet. In a word "Harvard." Harvard professors do not merely sup with the gods on Olympus, they are themselves gods. So any conversation with mere mortals is a matter of noblesse oblige. It is highly likely that a tired Prof. Gates, eager to get into the house and take off his shoes, did not feel particularly obliged.

4:32 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Get over it! Pass the page and work hard for your country so that it can be brought back to its glory days. Back to the era of the "american dream", not this "american nightmare". Obama? a good man. History will tell what is too early to judge. To define Mr. Obama as a "black man" is inaccurate and misleading. On one hand, he is not your typical black man in this country. He is well educated, a Harvard graduate, a former Senator, now our President. On the other hand he is of mixed race, the son of a white mother and her family who raised him. Were he from one of the ghettos in the South, from a broken family, and a high school dropout I doubt he would have made it into the White House; the same could be said of a white person with similar socio-economic characteristics. Is it all about race?

4:34 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Let Americans - of ALL races and colors -- decide for themselves whether this is an incident that warrants a "national dialogue on race." Suggestion: Release the transcript of the incident. Let's get the FACTS, pure and simple. President Obama ("I don't have all the facts, but...")and writers like Peniel E. Joseph appear to be more interested in using this incident as further proof of a hopelessly racist white America than using it as a vehicle to get to the truth. Instead of continuing to cite the "two versions" of the icident (Gates' account and that of police officer James Crowley), let's get the "one and only version." The "teachable moment" for Obama, and those who want this to be a matter of race, is to not make judgements before one has the facts.

4:36 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Racial profiling, if it is anything more than another term for racial discrimination, means leaping to unjustified conclusions about people because of their race. This sounds like something we all can deplore without much reflection. Few of us will. Can't we all just get along?

4:58 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Black friend of Prof Henry Louis Gates' who had called the arrest "every Black man's nightmare," said Monday that he won't apologize for his remarks. A multiracial group of police officers supporting Crowley has demanded an apology.

6:01 AM  

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