POST-RACIAL, MY FOOT!
By Wilfredo Gomez
Friday, August 07, 2009.
It all started with a message on Facebook received at 1:34 a.m. on Tuesday, July 21, 2009. The message came from a friend and dear colleague, Rudy Aguilar, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. The message sent with a hint of urgency simply read: “Yo yo did you hear the news?” He proceeded to inform me of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. I had heard about the news earlier via the social networking site facebook. Had it not been for the site, I may not have heard about the news until reading the New York Times.
The fact that I could be informed via Facebook is telling on a number of levels. I am of that generation of students whose formative college experience as an undergraduate was had with the advent of facebook. At that time facebook was still exclusive to college students and seen as more “sophisticated” version of other social networking sites such as Myspace. As such, were it not for the activists, intellectuals, and students that are “in the know” I may not have known of Gates’ arrest.
As the conversation proceeded my friend sent me a link to the Boston Globe’s story highlighting the details of the arrest. He pointed out that the comments in response to the piece were an indication of the “quotidian racism” that passes in America. While some comments were arguing for a more nuanced critical eye, others settled on flat out ignorance.
To this, I pondered, what is the real and imagined significance and impact of such an experience as it relates to the broader spectrum of incidents regarding the treatment of marginalized and oftentimes silenced communities across America?
Allow me to explain.
In the confidence of my friendship I shared that I had been staying with some friends on the Main Line of the Philadelphia suburbs. On three separate occasions within a week and a half I had been stopped by Lower Merion police where I encountered a barrage of questions: “What are you doing here/?” “Where do you belong?” Can you prove that you’re staying where you have stated?” “Can I see some form of identification?”
All of these incidents have taken place while I was on a cell phone and walking around the neighborhood. On the first of these encounters a police officer on patrol did a u-turn at a light and proceeded to blind me with the lights from his vehicle.
This is assuming that I did not see him as he so clearly saw me late at night. After producing some ID (from the state New Jersey where I was born and raised) I defended myself by telling the officer that I was an alumnus of the school nearby, and that I would begin my doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. With that information the cop proceeded to leave before I could get his badge number and name. For the record I am a light skinned Puerto Rican who also has a disability, cerebral palsy.
When I shared these experiences with another friend he replied, “well what do you expect, you look Puerto Rican. He probably thought you were from Philadelphia!” Coincidentally I am currently residing in Philadelphia, North Philadelphia to be exact.
If listening with great intent is possible during a conversation on facebook, Rudy waited patiently to share with me some of his own experiences during the June. While in his hometown of Chicago he was stopped in his neighborhood by police and immediately asked “Who do you ride with (what gang)?” While Rudy himself is a light skinned Mexican, such a question assumes that urban Latinos/as and by extension urban Black youth are ill equipped to deal with the racist antics of police that far too often go unchecked and unreported. For the record, Rudy was stopped while in a car by several Mexican cops and one Black cop.
I highlight these experiences to illustrate the kinds of experiences happening all across America on a day-to-day basis. It is perfectly fine, within the context of many of our experiences as residents of urban America to feel anger, resentment, mistrust, and a mixture of fear and awe when it comes to dealing with the police and the power they wield. As such, it is acceptable to trust your initial feelings and respond accordingly.
I commend the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies for being a groundbreaking scholar and expanding the field of African Diaspora studies. More importantly, I commend Gates for sticking up for himself, being fearless, for protecting his right to privacy, and for interrogating the policemen present as they would any of the “unknown urban Black males” Harvard Professor Lawrence Bobo alludes to in his piece “What do you call a Black man with a PhD?”
With time details will begin to emerge as to the specifics surrounding the arrest of Gates (the charges which since then have been dropped). As cultural critic and author Toure would suggest in his piece “Skip’s racist wake up call,” there are serious discrepancies between claims of truth in this particularly story.
However, we should not let that obscure the experience of many at the expense of one. There are many truths to tell from these incidents and communities of color have consistently wrestled with pain when considering incidents involving Sean Bell, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, and Oscar Grant. “Disorderly conduct” can be interpreted to mean anything from asking a reasonable question as to the reasons for being stopped, to actual disrespect and disregard for the police. In the former, we are brought back to chargers of “vagrancy,” not producing ID, or not following racial norms in the Jim Crow South.
Gates is absolutely right in asserting that the police were not aware of who they were dealing with. But the fact of that matter is neither do we, the American public. Many of us dealing with police misconduct and harassment in post-industrial urban America did not graduate summa cum laude in history from Yale University. Nor did we receive an M.A. and Ph.D in English literature from Claire College in Cambridge University.
Everyday working class folks are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for; they read and engage in critical discourses in spaces such as barbershops, the local library, and the local hangout spot. While some may be aware of Gates’ prolific and far-reaching scholarship, some if not most of us in urban America are unaware of an eight volume set, African American National Biography.
Many in North Philadelphia or my hometown have never heard of Encarta Africana or one of my favorites, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. The assumption that Gates is readily recognizable to the average person or Cambridge police for that matter is a rather presumptuous.
Figures such as Denzel Washington, T.I., and President Obama are also well known Black men in America. Yet, they too are not immune from incurring the speculative wrath of hostile policemen. Gates is widely recognized and respected within certain spheres where access to resources, institutions and the privileged are the norm rather than the exception.
When Michele Obama stated on 60 Minutes that (then) Senator Barack Obama could get shot on his way to the gas station, she spoke of a particular universal experience based on humanity. This sense of self-awareness seems different from the claims made Gates, though he too is speaking as a Black man in America who has obviously been “othered” by the police and neighbors who may well have known who they were calling the cops on. This episode ties Gates’ experience to those of communities of color all across America.
In closing, Henry Louis Gates represents one of he public “faces of America,” an America that has proven itself incapable of being described as anything post racial, post racist, or progressive when dealing with the disabled. The financial, social, cultural, and human capital Gates has access to (representation from fellow Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, an outlet such as PBS, one of the prestigious 20 University Professorships, a Ph.D, a phone call of apology from the mayor of Cambridge, and a shout out from President Obama) and the experience he has been unjustly subjected to are an appropriate place to find a synthesis between theorizing the deconstruction of race and race in practice.
Bigotry is alive and well in America. This is just another instance of what hip-hop group the Lost Boyz succinctly described as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless.” Some instances involving high profile figures such as Gates’ are well known and receive media coverage, while others are incidents pass without print or airtime, gone, but certainly not forgotten. It is all the same game and its time to flex some muscle.
If there is anything to be learned from this injustice, it is that we can use this experience to shed light on similar occurrences across the Diaspora and expand the dialogue to include the long list of the brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers living next door who are unjustly targeted by police precisely because of the way they look, and those who overstep their boundaries as individuals who are allegedly around to “serve and protect.”
With thanks to New Black Man.
Wilfredo Gomez is a Doctoral Student in Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.