I was the keynote speaker for a Black History Month luncheon - invited by an organization of prominent successful African American business people. It was less than a month after President Obama had been sworn in as the first Black American President. During the speech I said in spite of this “we are still a nation of people, living within a nation, searching for a nationality”. A lady seated near the front spoke out, loudly I might add, saying “I am an American – I know my nationality”. I looked in her direction, noticing not only was she rude, but that she appeared offended by the remark.
It seemed as if the entire room of several hundred people in this very elegant downtown Washington, DC hotel emptied and there was only the two of us in the room. I moved from the podium in her direction and said, “You know, in my lifetime I have been colored, a Negro, Afro-America, Black, African American, and many things I won’t repeat. Nonetheless, thank you for making me aware that we are now Americans. Would this be the result of having entered an era that’s being called post racial?” She replied “Yes”. Hmmm.
I asked her, “Can you meet me later, say about ten o’clock, in front of this very building and let’s try to catch a taxicab to go to your neighborhood?” In this city that some would describe as the capital city of the free world; you will find out very quickly how much of an America you are when the cabbie refuses to pick us up. I assumed this black woman, as well as many black people believe that just because we have a black president that somehow something magical has happened where racism has ended and all is right with the world.
Now, fast forward to last Friday when I received a twitter message about an incident where Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for trying to break into his own home near Harvard Square. Dr. Gates is a renowned Harvard University Professor, a preeminent African-American scholar, editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com, and one of America’s foremost authorities on race - among many other accolades. More importantly, he is the very best of us - not the least of us. Therefore, I was drawn to this story immediately.
Details about the story were slow to become available, at least for a few days, but as the story began to unfold, as with any situation that involve “Black and White” there were two distinctly different accounts. The officer was there because of a call from a neighbor reporting “a black man breaking into a home” in the white neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass. According to the policeman Dr. Gates was screaming the word “racist” for no apparent reason other than he was a white cop who showed up at his home. The officer also indicated that Gates told him, when asked to step outside, “I’ll speak with your mama outside” and threatened to go after his job. Before I go any further, this incident occurred in one of America’s northern most cities and not Mississippi. However, in America “anywhere south of Canada is in the south”.
According to Dr. Gates, the cop mistreated him because he is black man. The professor asked the officer for his badge number and identification, which is his right as a citizen. Published accounts say the police officer refused to comply with this citizen’s request. At this point both agree that Dr. Gates did produce a driver’s license and his Harvard University ID, when asked by the officer clearly indicating that this was indeed his home. And yet, the police officer arrested Dr. Gates for disorderly conduct because the officer felt threatened, (wink) which is the all too familiar theme or codeword used for justification.
Dr. Gates is a 58-year-old slender built black man who requires a cane to walk. The officer, from the pictures I’ve seen, is a substantially larger and younger individual with a gun and a license to kill. The officer claims that had no choice but to use the four worst words in the English language to a black man “you are under arrest” basically for being home and black. Many people of the other hue are saying the officer’s story must be true because he is the police and Gates shouldn’t have said that to the policeman, who was only doing his job. In addition, they say that Gates’ position as a college professor with no criminal record should not be a factor at all in the story. Wait a minute, haven’t we seen this movie? It’s called, “The Uppity Negro Syndrome” where the black man has not committed a crime but has a big mouth.
By Tuesday, the charges of disorderly conduct against Professor Gates were dropped. The police and Dr. Gates issued a joint statement calling the incident “regrettable and unfortunate.” Because the charges were dropped tells me that once again overreaching by law enforcement was the reason - otherwise Dr. Gates would have to appear in court to face the charge. It also tells me (MESSAGE) that no matter how much education you have as a person of color, you still can’t escape institutional racism making us keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system; a reality for many people of color and black men in particular.
We might be able to understand the reasoning for this philosophy that is the foundation for institutional racism from someone who knows; a well-known cable TV pundit Pat Buchanan. On the Rachel Maddow Show last week he was talking about the Senate Judiciary Committee GOP members who opposite to the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. Although it was a different topic, it is the same basic theory used to reinforce institutional racism and their inner sense of racial superiority that is viewed systematically as their God given right. And I quote:
“White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks, who were 90% of the nation in 1960 when I was growing up and the other 10% were African-Americans ... That's why. Damn straight! And what were all those black people doing at the time when heroic white people were setting about the important business of founding this great nation of ours? You guessed it! Hanging around fields, picking cotton, like bone idle jerks! None of that ever contributed anything to the common weal, of course! I mean, what is “cotton?” Not exactly THE FABRIC OF OUR LIVES, right?”
I wonder if the lady from the luncheon, wherever she is today, is aware that this incident, aside from the many others tragic and unnecessary situations that happen to African America’s everyday is a reminder that for all the racial progress she feels the country seemed to have made with the election of President Obama - not much has changed in the everyday lives of most people in terms of race relations.
To be continued – I am sure…
Follow my blog @ http://justaseason.blogspot.com