“Go to the door, get frisked, just in order to get in.. and if you wasn’t from this town, then you couldn’t fight and win…” MC Shan, “The Bridge”, 1986

So, as President Obama made his pitch for health care reform at a White House press conference, a seemingly left-field question asked him to address the recent confrontation between Harvard Professor Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates and members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force. What is known is that Professor Gates had recently returned home from a trip overseas. Apparently at the time, there was a call made to local police alleging two black men were trying to break into a local home. The slightly built Dr. Gates had trouble opening his front door, and asked his driver’s help. Shortly after entering his home, police showed up.

“The bridge is over, the bridge is over… biddy-bye-bye.. the bridge is over, the bridge is over, hey-hey…”
Boogie Down Productions, “The Bridge is Over”, 1986

Arrested Developments

From there, the accounts vary on what exactly happens next. Dr. Gates claimed that the police were being hostile and belligerent—refusing to leave after he confirmed that he was a resident of the house and refusing to give him their names and badge numbers. The arresting police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, claims that Dr. Gates was being hostile and belligerent. Dr. Gates was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct—a charge that was dropped as the story went national.

“..The term they apply to us is a n-----; call it what you want ‘cause I’m coming from the corner, same applies with a PH. D.”
Chuck D, “Tales from the Darkside (Endangered Species)”, 1990

President Obama’s initial statement was to say that the police acted “stupidly”, which caused a firestorm of backlash, certainly from conservatives who feel that a President should not be commenting on a private citizen’s legal problem (funny, that wasn’t the case with Terry Schiavo), let alone openly criticize law enforcement authorities. Certain pundits now seek to use this as an example that Obama is out of touch. Plenty of folks are looking at it as just another ‘liberal intellectual elitist’ seeking publicity. “Racial profiling? Pfaw!” Once again, where people fall in this debate depends on their cultural position. For sake of (relative) brevity, I’ll defer to some statements I made in a blog well over a year ago (3/21/08; in italics):

It’s like this. Say I’m minding my own business in my house. Looking out the corner of my eye, I see the neighbor’s kid in their yard; he’s trying to hit a baseball by himself. Suddenly, crash! A window breaks, and I see there’s a baseball. Looking directly out the broken window, I see the neighbor’s kid with the bat, still in his yard, staring right at me. So I walk over, knock on the neighbor’s door, and the kid’s dad answers. I explain to him nicely that apparently his son hit the ball that broke my window. But Dad isn’t trying to hear any of this. “Not my son! He’s too classy!” Incredulous, I still try to nicely explain what I saw with my own eyes and the evidence at hand. Says Dad: “What ball, and what bat?” I’m more than a little flustered, now, but I’m keeping my cool.

Then the son shows up, and I ask him to tell his Dad what happened. The son starts parroting Dad, claiming he was trying to fry ants with a magnifying glass. Then Dad takes it to another level: “How do I know you didn’t break your own window?” Only when I finally blow up and start cursing him out, then I can probably find myself getting labeled as A Troublemaker, and maybe the next day I find myself with a citation for not having my front yard bushes trimmed to some arbitrary figure. Insult upon injury. Your intelligence, your ways of reasoning, your method of interpretation, is always called into question when it contradicts something within white cultural defaults. Your grievances, your concerns, are not addressed, ultimately, because they are not even “real”. This is the burden that black America bears that white America has never truly had to deal with in the aggregate.

It’s Miller Time… ?

Allegedly, the President has attempted to broker a peace meeting between Dr. Gates and the Sgt. Crowley, ostensibly over beer at the White House. I will not attempt to speak for Dr. Gates. I will say on my own behalf that that if I feel that I’ve been deliberately mistreated, I have no interest in trying to settle things by bonding over beer (and not just because I’m not huge into beer). Even if there was unlimited iced tea being served, I would have no interest in invalidating my experience to appease the skepticism of others.

“Siberians no better than Nigerians.. My nationality’s reality; And, yo—a prejudiced man is of a devil mentality…”
Kool G. Rap, “Erace Racism”, 1990

I don’t feel obligated to convince anyone (in particular, law enforcement apologists, or self-described moderates who feel that racism officially ended with Obama’s election) that I’m not the kind of (black) person who constantly looks for any angle to whine or seek victimhood. I am not, for example, someone who finds fault with the fact that most commercially available paper is white (and, apropos of nothing, I would be remiss not to point out that its original form tends to be brown before bleaching makes it just right for our printers). Still, I feel that searching for common ground in situations like this—even as espoused by the President—is quite overrated; especially if the other party feels I have to pass some litmus test just to prove I belong. If someone considers that as ‘burning bridges’ then so be it: Perhaps the toll is too great.


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