Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Handcuffing "post-racial possibility"

The charges against Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have finally been dropped. The Nation has a piece by Melissa Harris-Lacewell on how apolitical Gates actually is (rather than being the "radical" some reports have characterized hin as). In fact, I was astonished to read that

Gates said in an interview to "I would sooner have believed the sky was going to fall from the heavens than I would have believed this could happen to me."

Here, by the way, is Harris-Lacewell's summary of the details of his arrest:

The Cambridge police and Professor Gates tell somewhat different versions of the story. But both sides agree that Gates came home to find his front door jammed. He used his key to enter by the back door. He and his driver then pushed at the front door until it opened. Witnessing this, someone called the police and indicated there may be a breaking-and-entering in progress. While Gates was on the phone with a property management company a police officer arrived. The officer requested identification. Gates produced it. Even after ascertaining that Gates had not illegally entered the property, the officer arrested him for disorderly conduct. The police report asserts Gates yelled and behaved aggressively. Gates denies this. The charges have been dropped. In short, Gates was arrested even though the police officer was fully aware that Gates lived in the home.

The heart of her piece is about how she had (before this) seen Gates as an embodiment of "post-racial possibility." Her conclusion is worth quoting:

It is hard to imagine many other African American men who would indicate such surprise. Even President Obama has spoken of the difficulty in hailing a cab and First Lady Michelle Obama has expressed her understanding of black men's vulnerability to random violence. But Gates seems genuinely surprised and deeply hurt. His sense of violation and humiliation evokes great empathy, but also some incredulity about his astonishment with racial bias in the criminal justice system.

I like and respect Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Although we have had intellectual and political disagreements he has always welcomed dissent and encouraged individuality. Our personal connection is not why I was so devastated to see his mug shot or images of him handcuffed on his front porch. I was not even distressed because of class implications that reasoned, "If this can happen to a Harvard professor then no one is safe."

My distress is squarely rooted in feeling that I watched the police handcuff American possibility.

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

This has divided people I know. People who don't have black friends, who consider themselves liberal, feel the cops are getting a rotten deal here and "We'll never know the truth of what really happened."

Well, I do know what happened, because it happens every hour of the day to many people in this country, poc and 'us.' But mostly it happens to men who are black and hispanic.

My younger black male academic friends are saying, "Hey Skip, welcome to my America." These are academic men who have or do live in Cambridge too. They are saying a part of them shamefully or not are glad that he's finally learned that his achievement have not exempted him from the fray of being a black man in America.

Love, C,.