What Fresh Hell Is This?

July 25, 2009

Interesting Point...

From Stanley Fish.

After some background on Henry Louis Gates at Duke University:
As the story unfolded in the press and on the Internet, I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?
The point:
Now, in 2009, it’s a version of the same story. Gates is once again regarded with suspicion because, as the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson put it in an interview, he has committed the crime of being H.W.B., Housed While Black.

He isn’t the only one thought to be guilty of that crime. TV commentators, laboring to explain the unusual candor and vigor of Obama’s initial comments on the Gates incident, speculated that he had probably been the victim of racial profiling himself. Speculation was unnecessary, for they didn’t have to look any further than the story they were reporting in another segment, the story of the “birthers” — the “wing-nuts,” in Chris Matthews’s phrase — who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and cite as “proof” his failure to come up with an authenticated birth certificate. For several nights running, Matthews displayed a copy of the birth certificate and asked, What do you guys want? How can you keep saying these things in the face of all evidence?

He missed the point. No evidence would be sufficient, just as no evidence would have convinced some of my Duke colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud. It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it’s the White House. Just as some in Durham and Cambridge couldn’t believe that Gates belonged in the neighborhood, so does a vocal minority find it hard to believe that an African-American could possibly be the real president of the United States.
Darn! Why didn't I think of that?


Joshua said...

I wonder how long it will be before I start hearing about the "Gang of 88" crap again and remember why I don't donate directly to my alma mater?

Nevermind, found comment 169. And then any number of results from Googling "henry louis gates" AND lacrosse.

EdHeath said...

Charles Blow’s column today is interesting as well. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/25/opinion/25blow.html)

As Obama started his response to a reporters question Wednesday night, we weren't there. So we may never know the specifics. And as I said on my blog, any sensible person, white or especially black, knows you should not yell at a cop. There might be an elaborate circumstance where it is ok, but 99 times out of 100 if you yell at a cop you will spend the night in jail.

That said, Stanley Fish only states the truth. Sure, Boston has a different history than Durham, and Cambridge is a cosmopolitan part of Boston. But no one should forget the protests and violence in Boston over busing. Dr Gates was lucky that he spent a few hours in the police station before being released, with all charges dropped, as opposed to getting beaten up. After all, that sergeant teaches racial sensitivity to police recruits. But Gates made the mistake of yelling at the sergeant in front of officers who presumably report to him. He almost had to arrest him.

So Gates did nothing wrong, per se, and got away with yelling at a policeman with no permanent consequences. What some pundits are starting to say is that the way to look at this incident is not to blame Gates or the sergeant. Gates had a right to be tired and cranky, but shouldn’t have pushed the issue. The sergeant showed some restraint compared to what might happen in other places in the country, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could live in a world where the cops only arrest people who deserve it, and leave the merely annoying in their houses, if that is where they happen to be.

Let’s let the larger issues resonate. Racism did not end when Obama took the oath of office. Just because there is anecdotal evidence of progress in race relations does not mean statistics bear that out.

Sherry said...

my daughter had a friend back in high school whose step-father is black, so was she. he was a very well to do, ob-gyn and they lived in a lovely house in the heart of fox chapel. many times her step father was mistaken for a gardener or handy man etc. my kid graduated from high school in 91, wasn't all that long ago.

if i were them i might have developed an "attitude" as well.