AMERICA’S FIRST LADY: Michelle Obama dancing with her husband at President Obama’s inaugural gala on January 20, 2009. A new book shares the history of her multiracial family tree.
While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.
With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.
Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.
One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.
With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.
The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.
As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.
A professor, a policeman, and the President offered all of us an opportunity to reconsider issues of race, class, and justice in America. But are we able to grasp the deeper lessons? Seven leaders reflect on the real message of the Henry Louis Gates controversy.
A special forum featuring William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston.
People wanted to make the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and subsequent brouhaha a parable about a lot of things — the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multilayered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we’re inclined to deposit racial events. And in the end, nobody’s mind really seemed to change about any of the issues at stake. Even Gates and Sergeant Crowley, the arresting officer, said they would simply “agree to disagree” after their much-heralded reunion at President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit.”
Now, a few weeks removed from the drama of the moment, and with the advantage of hindsight and cooler emotions, perhaps there’s a better chance of drawing some meaningful lessons from what has been glibly labeled by the media as “Gates-gate.” We asked seven Christian scholars, pastors, and urban leaders to give us their perspectives on the real message of the Gates-Crowley-Obama “teachable moment.”
WILLIAM PANNELL: I was listening to President Obama’s press conference, and when I heard the answer he gave about Gates and the cop, I knew he had made a serious mistake. I said out loud, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” He was out of line not knowing all the facts, and he responded out of his experience of being black in a nation run by white cops. His answer was understandable, given this history. And this history is still very much alive all across this nation. But he is the President of this country; of all people in this country, including those who have never been in the back of a bus. No president should rush to judgment and speak off the cuff as he did. I don’t know what he said to Crowley during their meeting in Washington, but I think he owes him an apology.
The other mistake he made was to be much too laudatory of Professor Gates. Gates is a hot-dog professor at Harvard who loves the spotlight and enjoys a reputation of being superior in human relations. At Harvard he is virtually untouchable, in part because he is black. He is a fine scholar of course, but this isn’t about scholarship. Further complicating this event is the fact that Mr. Obama is an honored graduate of Harvard. Too much baggage for a president to carry on this one.
What have we learned? Not much, probably, for those whose experience on either side of this issue precludes the possibility of seeing both sides of this event. Black people are still being mistreated by white cops — black ones, too, for that matter. A cop is a cop; they represent the army of occupation in all our cities. Civilians beware!
On the other hand, policing is much more complicated an enterprise today than in the more recent past. And most departments have made strong efforts at preparing their officers to respect civilians of all colors in the line of their duties. But it is still true that racism is alive and well in this country. If I were I still a father of teenage boys, I would warn them about any encounter with police. I did this when my boys were in their teens, and I’d still do it today.
The way forward in this arena of mistrust requires that we open discussions between “civilians” and the “army.” When such conversations do occur, they are most often heated because they have been triggered by some encounter between the police and a civilian. Riots have been set off this way. Ask Rodney King.
What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop “communities of discourse,” climates where trust can be developed. The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone’s backyard. The barbecue tastes better there.
Then this: One of these days the executives of major news outlets need to get converted from their corporate greed and realize that free speech is really not free. It carries with it serious responsibilities for the general welfare of a people. Spreading hate on CNN, Fox, or any other outlet ill serves the nation. We are very badly divided in this country. Under intense pressures owing to the economic crisis, nerves become frayed and the natives get restless. If we cannot talk about our differences, we are in serious trouble. And our differences are anchored in fear. So let’s talk about what makes us afraid.
Dr. William E. Pannell is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the past he has served as a professor of evangelism and as director of the African American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993), Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992), and My Friend, the Enemy (1968).
CHERYL SANDERS: I think the real message of the Gates affair is that white privilege does not readily convey to affluent and influential people of color. As a next step, beyond meeting over beers, perhaps President Obama should consider convening town meetings around the nation to discuss these issues, if he can garner the political courage and moral authority to do so.
At Third Street Church of God, we have incorporated the ministry of reconciliation into our mission statement and ministry priorities. One reason why race relations remains problematic in the United States is the failure of Christians to acknowledge that all persons are made in the image of God and that God is no respecter of persons. Therefore we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the racism, sexism, and elitism practiced in many of our churches reflect the will and Word of God.
The special role churches could play to bring healing to our racial rifts would require recollection, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, in that order. Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy — there must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders has been senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., since 1997, and is Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she has taught since 1984. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).
GLENN LOURY: The real message? I think it’s that the president must do a better job managing the “race” issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right. And, he’s been revealed by his handling of this incident to be not nearly as sure-footed as conventional wisdom would have it. This is likely to cost him politically over the long run, which cannot be good for African Americans or progressives in this country.
We have to find a way to talk honestly about our problems, which lie at the intersection of race and class. It’s not blackness in general, or in the abstract, that is the issue. The racial profiling of successful black Americans is not the deep problem here. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a problem. I’m saying if that were all that was going on, it wouldn’t be a fundamental blemish on our democracy. What is a fundamental stain on our democracy, and what gives rise to a great hypocrisy in the way our country presents itself to the rest of the world, is the virtual police state that is being run in our midst, with its great weight falling on the backs of the black and brown, urban, low-income, poorly educated, socially marginal populations who have fallen between the cracks. This incident, and the way in which it has been handled, including by the President of the United States, reveals just how far we are from being able to confront our true racial demons.
What role should the church play? No more or less than in any other central area of American life (the environment; economic justice; war and peace, etc.). I don’t believe that this is a “why can’t we all get along?” kind of spiritual battle. It is a political and economic battle, which of course has a spiritual and moral dimension. But, it is not a question of personal morality (how should black and white individuals deal with encounters like the one in Cambridge last month?). Rather, it is a question of public morality — that is, how should we as a nation deal with those who are being left behind?
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality.
CURTISS PAUL DEYOUNG: The confusing details surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department demonstrate once again the challenge of healing the open wound of racism in the United States. The incident reveals the often unseen depth of generational scars and raw fears experienced by persons of color, even those who sit in elite positions in the country. It also shows how those serving within institutions in our country fail, despite their best efforts, to recognize these effects and order their behaviors accordingly.
Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality.
Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has experience in urban multicultural ministry in the United States and South Africa, and his research interests include multicultural interpretations of the Bible and interfaith dialogue. DeYoung is the author of several books, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.
ARTURO LUCERO: I think one of the main lessons from the Gates incident is that frustrating circumstances can be a seedbed for misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. Proverbs says, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” And it later says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”
The Civil Rights Act protects all Americans from discrimination. But it does not change the heart of man. The only real answer to matters of race and class is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Government legislation may impact our actions, but the Word of God transforms our lives. It teaches us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35), to put the interests of others above our own (Phil. 2:3-4), and to forgive (Eph. 4:32b). Although the Word of God is clear in its teachings on this matter, some preachers of the Word are not.
The role of the church is to bring people to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Paul goes on to describe how we are to reflect that maturity, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal. The only biblical solution is for pastors to teach their flocks to forgive those who hurt us (Eph. 4:32b), love our enemies, and to pray and do good to those who hate us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27).
Arturo Lucero is the president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry and also serves as an adult ministry pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, California, a multiethnic congregation of 4,000. As the former director of Bible Church Mission, a church planting agency, he developed a strategy for ministering to the growing Hispanic community through an established non-Hispanic church. As a conference speaker and consultant to churches, his focus is on equipping churches for reaching the immigrant community. He has contributed chapters to the books Reuniting the Family of God, edited by A. Charles Ware and Eugene Seals, and Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting, edited by George and Sherelyn Yancey.
VASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I think a big lesson from the Gates incident is that stereotypes persist in our world. Stereoptypical attitudes will meet you in the boardroom, classroom, locker room, on the street, or even at your front door.
Stereotypical attitudes, unfortunately, are a part of our everyday lives. We’d like to think they’re dead and gone, but often they just depart for a season. We stereotype each other all the time. Just when you think it’s safe, it will happen to you or to someone you know. And whenever it happens, it hurts.
When I read the news account that Professor Gates was arrested in his own home, it suddenly didn’t seem like 2009. Instead, it felt more like 1959. Racial profiling was alleged, but law enforcement officials also felt unfairly judged for trying to carry out their jobs. Stereotypes can affect all sides of a conflict.
A stereotype paints men and women a color that they have not earned and do not deserve. There are stereotypes in every person’s closet, and they come out at the most inconvenient times. Stereotypes are a group fixed notions about a person or group of persons or the conceptioins that surround a position or occupation. There are stereotypes about certain ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. There are stereotypes surrounding Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. There are stereotypes surrounding men and women. There are stereotypes surrounding people of African, Irish, Polish, or Hispanic descent. One person may be viewed as confident, while another doing the same thing is considered arrogant. One person’s action is called “survival,” while another doing the same thing is “looting.” One person running down the street may be considered jogging, but another person doing the same thing must be running away from something because they must have done something.
Even Jesus experienced stereotyping. In the Gospel of John, chapter one, Philip found Nathanael and told him that they’d found the One that Moses had written about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote — “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” What was Nathaniel’s response? “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael hadn’t even met Jesus, hadn’t shaken his hand, didn’t Googled him, hadn’t read his résumé. He just figured that he wasn’t any good because he came from Nazareth. We all dream of a better world where character is elevated over color and class. But if you want a better world, you have to work for it. It won’t come by wishing.
John wrote about a beloved community; Martin Luther King Jr. preached about it; Donny Hathaway sang about it, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But it won’t come by wishing; it will only come by seeking God and working for a change. We need to work on getting rid of these stereotypes today.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first female bishop in its history — and serves in the 13th Episcopal District, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her latest book is Swapping Housewives: Rachel & Jacob & Leah. Her teaching, inspirational meditations, and commentaries are available as a podcast at ThisIsYourWakeupCallOnline.com.
TALI HAIRSTON: The conclusions drawn from racial incidence in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.
President Obama recently created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley situation as a “teachable moment.” This triggered a litany of reflections on one of America’s oldest closet skeletons. What is inferred by the President is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race.
What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.
For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African American male with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Gentile for reconciliation and community development; the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality. We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are only addressed while emotions and sensitivities are running high. But when the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation or as Christians to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.
How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities that so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.
Tali Hairston is Special Assistant to the President at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. At the helm of the Perkins Center, he is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins. Hairston is passionate about seeing SPU contribute to the reconciliation movement in Seattle and the nation.
President Obama reads letters from the public, as he sits at his desk in the Treaty Room Office in the Private Residence. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza, 2009.)
Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle down and let this most recent and unfortunate situation fade into the mists of past news cycles, I just wanted to humbly offer a few words of advice. In the future, please refrain from telling the truth about racial situations when asked. Clearly some of us in America aren’t quite ready for it yet. In fact, many are still trying to come to grips with the fact that you got elected in the first place.
Now, between you and me, we both know that the existence of your presidency doesn’t erase the centuries-long tradition of racism in America. Many of us — or our parents and grandparents — can still remember the days when segregation was an institution and a daily fact of life … not just a word waved around in the month of February.
You ran on the promises of hope, change, and a unified America. When I saw you speak at the Democratic Convention in 2004, I thought to myself, there’s the man who should be leading the country … and the thought was so incredibly far-fetched at the time. Even after you announced your candidacy, it seemed impossible to even dream that it would actually result in having you as our President. When Joe Biden uttered those ill-chosen words, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy …” we knew what he was trying to say, but it underscored the delicacy of the racial situation these days.
But you have to admit that we’ve certainly come a long way in these past few years, though I know we’re not there yet. However, in these critical early months of your administration, it’s important that you recognize the need for the masses to hold on to their warm, fuzzy feelings about your victory last November — not to mention their need to keep their racial blinders firmly in place. Is the danger of being stopped for “driving while Black” still a reality in 2009? Of course not! And do young Black men and women still get watched more closely in the store than their White counterparts? No! That is all completely behind us! Let’s move on; after all, slavery was a long time ago. We’re equal now!
Sure, we’ll hear the reports of the occasional group of school kids turned away from a swimming pool in the Philly suburbs … but that wasn’t a racial issue, that pool was simply too crowded. And we know that the situation with Professor Gates had nothing to do with race (not in this day and age). If Professor Gates would’ve just taken a deep breath and showed the proper respect to Sergeant Crowley, understanding that police officers seldomly treat people differently based on the color of their skin, there would be no need for your beer summit today.
Let us continue to believe that racism is dead in America, and that racial profiling is no longer an issue in our cities. Be patient with us, Mr. President … perhaps in a few years we’ll be able to engage in open, honest dialogues about race and racism. But for now, let’s just keep it our little secret. Give my best to Michelle and the kids.
Christopher Linder, Color-Blind in Atlanta
Remakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.
You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.
We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.
The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.
I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.
Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.
Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.
Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.
Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.
Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.
I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.
Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.
If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.