Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Being Black in "Post-Racial" America I

When I was studying at American University, I used to live in a neighborhood called American University Park. It's a beautiful neighborhood in Upper Northwest, DC (an area also jokingly referred to as Upper Caucasia, because it is in the whitest section of majority black DC), known for some of its famous (in the DC sense) community members. Former Senator Phil Gramm (the turtle) lived a few blocks over from me, for example.

Now I recognized that I was no longer in regular DC. Though I was legally able to move about as any normal standard American should, I knew I had to do a couple of things. First, I made it a point to introduce myself to all of my neighbors (I was the only black person on the block...actually for at least two blocks for a while). Second, on my first trip to the grocery store, I discovered that there was a Metropolitan Police Officer (K-9 unit) who lived around the corner. On my way home, he was outside. I went right up to him, groceries in hand, and introduced myself. I told him (I wish I could remember his name; the kids were nice) that I'd just moved in around the corner, and that I supposed we would see each other occasionally.

For three years, I had no trouble whatsoever. In my second year there, a young black couple moved across the street from the officer. It was funny when we saw one another, because the meaning of the waving and smiles was clear: We are not alone. Yet, in my last year there, something happened, and it reminded me of certain realities.

I was walking from the Metro at twilight, knapsack slung over my shoulder, and dressed as preppy as always. A little less than a block from me was one of my neighbors (she lived in the basement apartment right under mine). As I raised my hand to wave hello, she had taken a quick glance back, made her assessment, and took off in a near run. Mind you, there was enough light to recognize people. And we'd been neighbors for almost two years at that point. I realized what was happening, and I kept walking home. By the time I got to our block, she looked back again, and ran the last bit of distance to our respective house.

When I got home, I decided to go downstairs and make mention of it. Ole girl actually denied taking off, and then she added that she didn't see me. And I noted that she was indeed correct; she didn't see me. She saw a black man, and a threat. She apologized (do you apologize when you've done no wrong?). I was polite and accepted, but I was reminded that no matter what you do, sometimes it is simply not enough to transcend perceptions and fears.

When I read that Henry Louis "Skip" Gates was arrested in front of his own home following a call to the police from a woman passing by thinking that Gates was breaking in to his own home, I immediately thought of all of the things I'd done in my neighborhood to avoid just such an incident. Had Gates done the same? Would it have mattered if he did? Why was there need of an arrest once it was clear that Gates was at home, and that the caller made a mistake? Was this caller a neighbor, and if so, how could she not recognize a fellow neighbor?

For all of this talk of a "post-racial" society, I think that it is silly. Of course we haven't transcended race. We have made strides that would have the heads of all our American ancestors spinning at the neck, and those strides have been good. Yet, for too many, crime will continue to have a black male face. And I will say that it pisses me off to no end the black men who help to perpetuate that stereotype. We, the law abiding black men, catch all the hell that should be heaped on the actual criminals, mostly because other folks haven't grown sophisticated enough to see the difference between a common criminal and say a Harvard scholar. Until that change happens, I don't want to hear a word about transcending race.

UPDATE (July 22, 2009): While checking out The Daily Dish, I came across this link to an essay that John McWhorter wrote in response to the Skip Gates incident. He put it in words that I both admire and understand, and I think he is right.


Scott said...

Excellent post as always Jeff!

SAL said...

Interesting. Though, I got jacked in my neighborhood last year because I don't think that way. Oh well.

hscfree said...

@SAL: I know, right. Now if you'd said that the dudes who jacked you were all dressed like H-SC men, then....

Also, did I tell you about what I described? I think we were still roommates at the time. I don't think I told you about me introducing myself to the cop around the corner.

donnaballard said...

I was floored when I heard this. Completely.

I'm hoping that people discuss this more and really look at this in depth.

SAL said...


Yeah, I remember you told me that she starting quick-steppin when she looked back and saw you. Messed up.

Fiona said...

There's a detailed interview and description in the Post. Among other things: how did his neighbor see him and not notice his height, his cane, etc. to identify him as Dr. Gates??

I'm thinking there won't be any Christmas cookies going to her house this year.

Anonymous said...

We will see how the Skip Gates situation plays out. There are several discussions to be had in coming days about racial profiling, how police interact with the public, how Gates might have handled the situation differently, and why that nosey neighbor is not heading a real community-watch program---she obviously has the time and acumen for keeping an eagle out.

Anonymous said...

A neighbor (not a passerby according to the WP) reported two men forcing open the front door of a home. The police responded. Gates was briefly held in the Cambridge police station and then released and he retreated to Martha's Vineyard. I'm not sure this episode captures the plight of African American oppression.

I think Gates is secretly thrilled. The race industry was having trouble getting traction since Obama's election. Now he and his colleagues can brief a sigh of relief that really America is still horrible after all. He can now spin this incident to confirm his worldview of the US as a despicable racist regime. He's already talking about commercializing the episode.

From the WP "He said his documentary will ask: "How are people treated when they are arrested? How does the criminal justice system work? How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?" (By the way, the WP picture of him in handcuffs shows a black police officer front and center.) I don't think that all of the people in prison are there as part of some vast racist conspiracy. They are there because they were convicted of committing crimes.

I was struck by the editorial in the WP just a day or two after the incident. A recent study concluded that "although blacks make up just 12 percent of the population, they account for 46 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS." What does Gates think about that? He doesn't want to talk about that because you can't blame anyone else. But maybe you can—perhaps he agrees that it is party of the HIV/AIDS conspiracy described by Obama's spiritual adviser, Rev Wright.

femmenoire said...

Racial profiling is not restricted to black males. As a black female, in the early 1980's, I lived in a white conclave just outside Hartford, CT. One afternoon, as I pulled into my driveway, a local police officer followed me and as I stopped to open my garage door, he asked for my identification.

I was immediately incredulous and knew what was going down, but calm prevailed. I asked if I had violated any traffic laws and he said no. So, I asked why I was being stopped. He paused because he didn't really have a good answer. The response was that he had not seen me before.

Even though my anger was mounting, calm prevailed and I introduced myself to the young white officer and I told him that I lived there, as I put the key into my garage door. I then asked if he was new, as I had not ever seen him before (a little of his own medicine). I thanked him for his concern and said it had been a long day and I was anxious to get inside.

After a few minutes of intense stare down, he backed off, got back into his cruiser and drove off. I never did produce my i.d. If I had been forced to, I know I would have made a formal complaint to my local police department.

The lesson for me was not to lose my temper. If we are to live in an ordered society, we have to respect the authority of the police. But we are right to question their judgement, as it is not always sound.

If Dr. Gates had been able to stay calm, invite the officers in for a full explanation, and (even if through clinched teeth) thanked them for their concern and their response to his neighbor's call, then perhaps the outcome would have been different. It was overkill to arrest him, but afterall they were trying to protect his property.

Racial profiling is a problem. But let's not fall into the victim syndrome just for the sake of it. Maybe after his rest on Martha's Vineyard, Dr. Gates might consider that a mutual apology is in order: his for over-reacting and losing his temper, and the officer for not keeping his temper and over-reacting by arresting Dr. Gates.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. Living in bumfuck, GA and going to school at H-SC, it's laughable to me when people say we're in a post-racial society. And I don't fault Dr. Gates one bit. I would be absolutely livid if that had happened to me. The whole situation is ridiculous, and I have a lot of thoughts on the matter, but you said it pretty well and I need to run to town, so I'll just say, "I agree."
-Brandon W

Anonymous said...

Somehow it's interesting... It's as if Gates, making a life-long living off of 'blackness' but ensconced in the ivory tower of Harvard,is somehow SUPRISED & SHOCKED by experiencing racism first-hand. Hmmm. If he really knew his subject matter in more than an "academic" way, he'd have known this a long time ago. I guess since he was wearing preppie clothes--so to speak--he somehow thought, all these years, that he was the 'exceptional negro.' In the long room this news story seems far more revealing about Gates himself than society-at-large (duh).

hscfree said...

@Anon 4: Interestingly, you make a point similar to Erykah Badu in her song "Soldier."

Anonymous said...

somehow P.T. Barnum Skip will milk a couple of million $$ out of this

Anonymous said...

i am white. once I was walking on an isolated urban street after dark and several young black males, looking the stereotype of thug, were walking toward me. i am very consciously anti-racist. thus, I consciously chose NOT to "profile" but to cross the street and to keep walking straight ahead. As it turned out I was mugged and robbed and then assaulted and shot at (thankfully bullet didn't hit me) and ended up in hospital. I'm still not a racist. But the real deal is this: this is a complicated subject that needs to be looked at on both sides of the coin--and also on the edges of the coin.

hscfree said...

@Anon 6: I agree with you 1,000%, and I am glad that you made it through what must have been a horrifying encounter. And I hold nothing but contempt for people willing to do to you what was done to you.

Anonymous said...

anon 6 replies: I guess I'm haunted by the possibility that, if I HAD profiled them, and consequently bolted in the opposite direction (quite frankly, as my 'gut' told me to do), there's a good chance that I'd never have been mugged...

Anonymous said...

anon 6 adds:
It's several days later. No, I didn't think you'd touch my last comment with a 10-foot barge pole.
In starting the topic of racial-profiling, you lied that you wanted to "look at all sides of this issue." Like a fool, I believed you.

If you are half as chicken-shit as the website that represents you, you should market yourself as fertilizer.

hscfree said...

First and foremost, you can disagree with me until we are both blue, but there is never a reason to reduce the level of discourse to name calling. Anyone who feels the need to come at me or any commenter, regardless of position, with invective like that displayed in the comment above will have his/her comment deleted, PERIOD. I will leave the aforementioned comment up for a little while as a reminder of what not to do here.

Micheal Sisco said...

Anon 6:

Are we kidding? Do we really have to stoop to name calling and such? I thought we all grew out of that kind of stuff back in middle school. And, isn't that kind of "yo mamma" comment what added fuel to an already smoldering Gates incident?
We can do better than that, I think. If not, there are other places could can unleash that kind of nonsense. It doesn't belong in an intelligent conversation!

About the incident: I really am struggling with the concept of this being a racial profiling incident. It doesn't fit in the classical definition (Driving While Black, etc.) ... the police were responding to a possible B&E. It's not as if they rounded up all the black men in the neighborhood.

I still think that the officer went WAY over the line ... Clarence Page did a great piece about it, calling it Contempt of Cop ... Nice phrase. MUCH better than racial profiling.