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This Post Is Not About Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Attempt To Enter His Own Home In Cambridge, MA

July 25, 2009, 2:14 pm

As news about Professor Gates’ confrontation with the Cambridge Police Department was breaking — or was it shortly after the President spoke so forcefully about it? — a friend turned to me and said: “Do not blog about this.”

That may be some version of what Michelle Obama was thinking as she saw her husband embark on what I thought was a humorous, candid and incisive commentary on the events surrounding a wealthy Harvard professor, his friend, being schooled by the police. (As an aside: if Obama were a blogger, he would have known not to use any derivative of the word “stupid.” Feminist bloggers know the content of what they are trying to say dissolves as (male) conservatives leap to censure them for disparaging such noble whitemale institutions as American policing or the Varsity Sport That Must Never Be Mentioned.) If there had been a thought bubble over Michelle’s head, it would have said something like: “Oh Barack, do not be honest with white people about this thing. They cannot handle it.” And indeed, it seems that we cannot.

Black commenters have spoken eloquently about the class and racial dynamics attendant to Professor Gates’ arrest, particularly here and here. I think white people have very little to add to some parts of this story, and so I would only like to thank the President for having said an honest and true thing. Why, even if I didn’t agree, it’s such a relief to hear a President do that! I don’t even think the word “stupid” is a fatal flaw: my guess is that it was a place-holder for “racist” in the way people often substitute a non-descriptive word for the descriptive one when trying to speak about repetitive, painful events (Spouse: “How was the department meeting?” You — a seething full professor who has just been treated like she knows nothing about her own field by a bunch of people not in her field — “Oh, it was just stupid.” And you say that because if you said “It was so sexist” you would have to experience that stab of knowing that nothing you do, ever, will cause them to stop treating you badly; that you will always have to endure it.) And of course, there were many layers of racism in this incident: from the anonymous white person who called the police in the first place, to the white officer unwilling to appear intimidated by a wealthy black Harvard professor’s rage, to the news media choosing to depict Professor Gates in handcuffs screaming, or with a mug shot, rather than using any one of a number of portraits that are commonly available (In less than half a minute, I downloaded the one in this post from his academic web page.)

So I want to talk about and to that anonymous white neighbor. Because I am a white neighbor of black and brown people, one who lives in an urban university environment, and there are a few things I have learned.

Primarily what I have learned is that white people put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women’s activism against lynching as early as the 1930s. I have learned that while many of us believe racially integrated neighborhoods are desirable, and some of us actively seek them out, no one talks to white people about their responsibilities for reigning in the racism that inevitably follows when white and black people come into proximity with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that white people put black people into danger all the time as a result of their good intentions, and that being aware of this is a full time job. I worry, for example, every time a close friend of mine I have known since college — a major property owner in the neighborhood, with an Ivy degree, wealthy, and a football celebrity — borrows my lawn equipment, because to your average cop he is just another _________ (fill in the blank) walking down the driveway and up the street with someone else’s electric mower.

This kind of awareness is very painful to come to terms with, as was the time I was driving a black job candidate around Zenith, stopped to ask directions, and saw the white man in his pretty suburban yard hurrying his children into the house — until he noticed that there was a white woman getting out of the driver’s side. I could feel his relief as an almost physical thing between us. As one of my friends said later about the job candidate, “I guess it’s something he should know about what it would mean to live here.” Of course he did already — it was me who had to learn it.

Coming to terms with slights, and ones that can turn into a dangerous situation in a heartbeat, is something every person of color in America deals with and knows more about than virtually any white person: I don’t care if Republican senators like Jeff Sessions says it ain’t so, it is so. Sonia Sotomayor is absolutely correct on this point. And to my mind, white people have a responsibility to come to an awareness about this. and act on it as a moral responsibility. To wit:

About two years ago, I was about to leave on a trip; my partner had taken the car somewhere else, so our driveway was empty. As I opened the door to a small hallway that leads to our back door with a bag of garbage in my hand, at that precise moment, a man standing at the door popped the lock with a screwdriver and stepped into my house.

I was, needless to say, surprised, and so was he. I said, “what the fuck are you doing in my house?” He said, very politely, “I’m so sorry,” turned around, closed the door, and walked swiftly down my driveway. I came shooting out the door, shouting some version of what I had already said as he turned the corner of the driveway and disappeared. Needless to say, I was very frightened, and probably would not have behaved so aggressively if I had not been.

I called the police. It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, since my neighborhood suffers from a lot of petty theft that I suspect is endemic to neighborhoods full of students from the ‘burbs who can be pretty casual about locking up: laptops next to open windows disappear, bicycles are liberated from back yards and so on. I described the thief the best I could: around 5’8″ (my height); medium-complected African-American; shaved head; round preppy glasses; middle-aged; dressed in a tennis shirt, pressed chinos and white sneakers. He looked,” I said helpfully, “Like a college professor.” What happened next was instructive: the investigating officer put the description out, and asked if I wanted to ride around and look at a variety of men who were being braced around the neighborhood for my inspection. I did, and with sinking heart, I saw “suspect” after “suspect” who looked absolutely nothing like the description I had given. They were tall; they were short; they were twelve; they were old; they were dressed like bangers; they were dressed in rags; to a man, they had full heads of hair, mustaches and beards; none were wearing glasses, and so on. Oh yes — all of them were, as far as I could tell, Latino, which in Shoreline generally means Mexican or Puerto Rican.

As I tried not to be sick with shame all over the officer’s front seat, I thought three things. One was, I hope to Heaven they have not picked up one of my friends or one of the next do
or neighbor’s children (who were routinely picked up by the police after a purse-snatching in the neighborhood.) The second was, how easy it would have been for me to say, “That’s him!” either in honest error or not and cause someone a world of trouble that was beyond humiliation: being taken to jail indefinitely, a lost job, being kept out of school, being found guilty of another misdemeanor. And the third was, this is what racial profiling looks like. Unless I or someone I know has been violently assaulted, I must never, ever call the police again for something so small if I am going to be a responsible citizen of this neighborhood. Letting someone get away with attempted robbery, a person who was completely non-violent (which experienced burglars are), is absolutely worth not humiliating ten other people who the police are using this opportunity to intimidate and shake down for evidence that they are committing some other petty crime.

This kind of event is, of course, part of what police mean by being in control, and what the officer was doing when he arrested Professor Gates who was guilty of nothing more than saying angry, nasty things at the top of his lungs as a crowd gathered. When a police officer makes an arrest like that he is saying, “See? I can do this. I can make your life a living hell for an hour, a day, or longer. I require deference.” The desired result is how many black men describe living their lives: a constant state of uncertainty as to what the police will actually do in any given situation, resulting in the need for profound deference and elaborate forms of self governance at all times (don’t run, wear too much jewelry, show money or speed when driving; make sure you dress nicely, cut your hair, avert your eyes, carry your company/university ID at all times.) A policeman intimidates so that he does not have to use violence (hence, making the risk of violence to his own person greater.) This can be best accomplished when a large number of people already believe that a policeman could become violent at any moment, for any reason at all. And why do the police not do this to white people as much as to black people?

Because, God help us, we white folks believe the police are our friends.

So Mrs. Cambridge White Neighbor, what should you have done? You should have stopped and asked the gentleman who was trying to get into the house if he needed help — and did he want to use your cell phone to call a locksmith (hint: burglars don’t jimmy the front door in full sight of everyone.) If he had no business getting into the house, he would have left. If he did have business in the house, he might have said, “No thanks — I think I’ve got it!” Or, “We’ve had so much rain, are your doors stuck too? ” Or, “Yes, thank you, I need to call my wife — hi, I’m Skip.”

But you didn’t. Perhaps it was because you fear black male strangers, like so many white people, no matter how they are dressed. But my guess is that you were embarrassed. You thought, “This is probably a Harvard professor trying to get into his own house, but if I stop and ask, he’s going to think I think he’s a criminal just because he’s black. And he might think I am a racist! I can’t risk that. So just to be safe — I’ll call the police!”

And my point is, Mrs. White Neighbor: safe for who? Why safe for you! Because the police are not a neutral party in such matters. They are not paid to help you navigate the social awkwardness of identifying your neighbors in a racially integrated neighborhood. They are paid to intimidate people who are physically similar to Professor Gates on your behalf, which means you cannot call them and expect that there will be no damage. To save yourself embarrassment or fear, you put a neighbor in a position in which there was a high likelihood that he would be arrested, physically injured or killed. He knew that — why didn’t you? And this is something I have not heard anyone say as a possible explanation for why Professor Gates behaved as he did in this situation.

He was frightened. And if so, in my experience, he was right to be.

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