Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dr. Gates tells his story

As an avid PBS watcher, I'm big fan of Henry Louis Gates. The reports of his arrest after struggling to open the door of his own home distressed me. Who hasn't had to break through a back door or open window when you'd locked yourself out? I imagine that most people, like me, have in that awkward moment of crawling through the window or whatever thought, "I hope the police don't drive by. This will be hard to explain!" I certainly never expected it could actually lead to an arrest. Which is why I think it is impossible to understand this incident without considering racism.

Racism is a system of oppression. It's not simply prejudice or bias. Whatever our biases, we are all complicit in the system of racism that is endemic in our society. It is rooted in the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. None of us today directly participated in those atrocities. But we are all inheritors of the effects of those systems of oppression. Our prejudices are shaped by generations of racial oppression. Our institutions are shaped by generations of racial oppression. We have made great progress, and the insidiousness of racism requires that we continue to fight against it. It is not enough for each of us as individuals to intend to treat each individual the same regardless of race. We must start there, and then we must seek to dismantle the institution of racism which leads to disproportionally higher rates of black men than white men in prison. We must dismantle the institution of racism which leads to dramatically inferior health care for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. We must dismantle the institution of racism which leads to higher rates of poverty among people of color.

In The Root, Dr. Gates explains what happened to him the day he was arrested. It is a disturbing account of how the institution of racism led to the arrest of an innocent black man on the porch of his own home. The officers involved are not evil. They are complicit in a racist system, including the African-American officer shown on TV clips. We don't know what his role was. We don't know whether he was in any position to speak against what was happening. We do know that he lives and works in the same society we do, in which most African-Americans depicted on TV, videos, and magazines are caricatures of criminals, drug dealers, domestic abusers, and murderers. We know that all of the officers involved were trained in a system which incarcerates more black men than white men. That does not make them "bad people." It does make them, and all of us who pay for these systems with our tax dollars, participants in racism.

It can only change if we are willing to acknowledge both our individual prejudices and the racism which invades every aspect of our society in dangerously subtle and not so subtle ways.

Maybe Lawrence Bobo can explain it better than I can, in his moving article "What do you call a black man with a Ph.D?"
Even before the charge (was) dropped Tuesday, I knew in my bones that this officer was wrong. I knew in my bones that this situation was about the level of deference from a black male that a white cop expects. I say this even though I did not see the events themselves unfold. What I do know with certainty is that the officer, even by his own written report, understood that he was dealing with a lawful resident of the house when he made the arrest. That same report makes it clear that at the time of the arrest, the officer was no longer concerned about the report of a “burglary in progress” involving “two black males.” No, by this point we’re talking about something else entirely...

If Skip Gates can be arrested on his front porch and end up in handcuffs in a police cruiser then, sadly, there, but for the grace of God, goes every other black man in America.

Thanks to the Rev. Heather Patton-Graham for posting the link to The Root articles. They're worth reading, so check them out!

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