Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black Professor vs. White Cop...A Powder Keg That Exploded

It was quite shocking to see the initial pictures of Professor Henry Louis Gates in handcuffs outside his house in Cambridge. If you're making a Mount Rushmore of Black Scholars he is certainly part of the discussion. As the details of the incident between Professor Gates and Seargent Crowley have come out, it has become more and more clear that this case was going to have staying power because of the profile of Dr. Gates. Now the President has gotten involved and managed to breathe more life into the flame before coming to his senses and moving as quickly as possible to squelch it so he can get back to pushing his Health Care Plan, a plan that is taking heavy fire from BOTH sides of the ailse. Let me break down each party involved so we can learn what NOT to do the next time a high profile Black intellectual has trouble getting into his house, and maybe start that REAL conversation on race I hear people talk about, but never engage in.

Professor Gates you had every right to be mad when the police showed up at your door talking about a robbery when all that really happened was that you had to force your way into your house after the door malfunctioned, but you should have also realized that from someone else's vantage point it could have legitimately looked like you were breaking in, and walking the cops through that would have kept the situation from escalating. I recently took a class on the LAPD, and four seargents audited the class to add insight from the field. What I took away from the course is that officers are trained not to take anything for granted when they are called to a scene, if they do, they are liable to end up leaving that scene in a bag. Dr. Gates, your alleged answer to Officer Crowley's request for you to identify yourself should not have been "Why because I'm a black man in America?" as noted in the police reports of both officers. I know there have been times that I've had to break into my own house as a teenager, and I was well aware how it might have looked to anyone passing by. I can see where you were trying to exert some of the privilege you have earned as a Harvard professor, but you took it too far by apparently failing to realize that the Officer was just trying to do his job. I must also say that I'm very surprised that you would go on CNN and say that this incident helped you realize "How vulnerable all Black men are." Really? Then I'm glad you got this awakening now, so that you can channel some of your considerable intellect into addressing issues of race and power that Black men deal with on a daily basis.

From all reports, I find little fault with your initial approach to this situation. The tipping point for you was simple. Despite the low level of cooperation you allegedly received from Dr. Gates, once you established that this elderly man was the lawful occupant of the home, then it was time to walk away. Eliminating threat is job #1 of an officer, and the threat was gone after Professor Gates produced his identification. If you couldn't calm him down, then perhaps Officer Figueroa should have tried, or one of the other officers who had arrived on the scene. Perhaps despite your record as a decorated officer, something that Professor Gates said ticked you off, and you decided he needed to be taught a lesson. Who knows, but in your position, you are held to a higher standard of being able to do what's right so that a situation does not escalate and you didn't. Neither did your colleagues for that matter, and that is disappointing.

When initially asked about the incident in a press conference where you were supposed to be talking about Health Care, you did the smart thing and admitted your bias towards Dr. Gates and noted that you didn't have all the facts. Given your bias, you should have stopped right there until you either talked to Gates or gotten a briefing from an aide. As soon as you went on to say that you felt the Cambridge Police had acted "stupidly", it was like you poured water on a grease fire. As President, you don't get to use words like "stupid" and "dumb" when describing situations like you're at the crib with your homies. Your position requires that you go for adjectives like "inappropriate" or "insensitive" as if you were still editing the Harvard Law Review. You did this on Friday when you readressed the issue, but the damage was already done. Now instead of being able to hammer Republicans about Health Care and make sure your Democratic supporters have your back, you've had to arrange a Happy Hour Picnic to put this story to bed.

For all those who try to spin this incident into something that has nothing to do with race, spare me. As the President noted in his initial press conference, there is a long history across the nation anecdotally and statistically about racial profiling. If you think that the race of Professor Gates and his driver had nothing to do with Ms. Whalen calling the police, you need to wake up. If you think that Officer Crowley made no initial judgment of Dr. Gates based on his race, the same is true. We all carry biases and prejudices based on our lived experiences as "raced" and ethnic beings. And please don't try to argue that Officer Crowley was above bias because he taught a workshop on racial profiling which he was selected to do by a Black Police Commissioner. Just because he can mechanically teach and understand the concept, does not mean that he's incapable of exhibiting racist behavior, especially when he's being called a "racist police officer". Issues of power, class, and race are laced all through this incident and only when people stop trying to look the other way and face it will we be able to have real conversations on race that help us all move forward in our understandings of one another.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Racism 3.0

One of my favorite professors often talks about how fighting racism has gotten so nuanced these days that it is often hard to see, hence the "3.0" tag. Couldn't help but think that we got a rare public view of what that looks like this week as we watched the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Eight years ago the judge, who appears to have a stellar record on the bench, made a comment about the ability of a "Wise Latina" to draw upon her experiences and come to a more fair conclusion than a White man who has not had the same experience. As she prepared to take a seat on the highest court in the land, she had "some 'xplaining to do" about what this comment meant.

How is this racist you may ask? Simple, only when Judge Sotomayor was about to access one of the most coveted positions of power in this country did she have to be reminded, by people of far less ethical fiber than her own, that it is not the experience of the Wise Latina that is most coveted in this country, and while she may be able to get on the bench, it would behoove her to remember that her rise has not been of her own making, and there are are still forces waiting to smack her down the first time she "steps out of line". Racism today isn't necessarily about overt acts of discrimination, though they certainly still happen daily, but more importantly racism today is about maintaining long standing power structures that favor a white, eurocentric tradition. Only when it makes sense for the best interest of this power base is a minority allowed access, and not until they have had their "hazing" about who they should thank for getting there. Hopefully Justice Sotomayor will continue to draw upon the experiences that have gotten her this far and show just exactly why the Wise Latina will be an asset to the high court.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Leave BET Alone....

I've had a chance to sit and marinate on this one because I had a proposal to get done, but I had to comment on the discussion around the annual BET Awards. A lot of the commentary I heard was from middle-class circles whose values and ideologies are closer to mine, but are CLEARLY the polar opposite of who BET is targeting. I realized a long time ago after growing up watching videos on BET that they were not targeting the late twenties and early thirties version of me like they were the teenage version. How else am I to understand the canceling of almost every show that had anything to do with engaging the intellect and informing the community. I loved TAVIS... they cancelled it. I loved Ed Gordon...they cancelled it. I enjoyed the BET Nightly News...they cancelled it. If the one station dedicated to the Black community cannot even support a news broadcast when we are constantly saying that we are not covered fairly by the CNNs and FoxNews networks, then clearly, their value system is different than mine, and I can either enjoy Tiny and Toya or not. I choose not.

So if you're like me and expect BET to be so much more than it is, you cannot be surprised when Soulja Boy is one of the main Michael Jackson tribute performances because his audience is who BET wants to watch. You can't be surprised when T-pain rolls out the BIG ASS CHAIN, and you just have to shake your head when you see Lil' Wayne with his daughter on stage while singing about "loving" every girl in the world. You embrace that they tried to give "Grown Folk" something with the Ojays tribute, and keep it moving by doing something about your disdain for BET's programming. Support BETJ for example, where all the "Grown and sexy" programming is supposed to be. Find TVOne on your dial and support that, but don't waste your time hoping that the flagship is going to care how "ghetto" you think their awards show is. Clearly it's doing well enough to satisfy the Viacom folk, and that's all that matters. As long as College Hill, and Baldwin Hills and Keyshia Cole get ratings, then who cares how what the message is, or how it's perceived. So leave BET alone, you'll keep from popping some blood vessels that way.