Many years ago, my parents returned late at night from a week-long get-away in Las Vegas. The old Admiral TV they’d had in the living room had died before they left and they didn’t have time to call the repairman (people repaired TVs in those days; the TVs also came in big wooden cabinets, but I digress). Mom and Dad wanted to unwind with a drink in the living room while watching Johnny Carson, so Dad went upstairs and took the smaller TV out of the bedroom.
About 10 minutes later, there was a pounding on the front door. Dad struggled to open the door, as we never used that entrance to the house and suddenly the people on the other end were yelling.
“OPEN IT NOW, SIR!” the voice boomed.
Clad only in his boxers and ratty T-shirt, Dad got the door open and stood face-to-face with two cops.
The cops demanded proof that Dad lived there.
“Can I get my pants?” he asked, feebly. “My license is in there…”
The cop escorted him into the dining room and Dad got his wallet out of his pants. The cops then asked him a bunch of questions: What was he doing up? Where had he been? Was he moving furniture?
Finally, when they were satisfied he was legit, they packed up and left.
The next day, the elderly lady who lived across the street came over. She explained she knew my folks were out of town and she had seen someone through our bay windows in the dining room carrying a TV, so she called the cops.
Dad told her he was fine and grateful that she had been so vigilant. He never lost it on the cops and while they weren’t friendly, the cops were professional.
I thought about this whole exchange while readingthe live blogging on the “beergate” phenomenon, which has blossomed from a local law enforcement issue to a societal drama and morality play.
The question that has been asked a great deal about this is the simple one: If Henry Louis Gates weren’t a black man in America, would the cop have been as aggressive in his approach to the situation?
It’s the easy question because that’s the question we’ve been trained to ask as the pendulum has swung from the racism of our country’s past to the guilt of our country’s present.
The harder question to ask is the bigger one: If Henry Louis Gates weren’t a black man, would this situation even merit a mention in the Beaver County Tidbit or whatever weekly covers Cambridge?
It’s harder because it forces us to look at issues from a less popular perspective. It’s the same reason we have difficulty asking if a rape really happened or if someone is really deathly ill. And because of this, we all buy the narrative and on occasion are taken advantage of by those who woulduse our squeamishness totheir own advantage.
It’s a horrible thing to ask and for years, we had a “blame the victim” mentality for everything, so to try to ask those questions picks at a less-than-fully healed scab. The wound might never heal, but it’s at least stopped bleeding. When we question someone who has been put on the wrong side of a bad situation, others come pouring out of the woodwork, questioning our motives.
We’re told to let sleeping dogs lie. Let’s not mess with the narrative.
Unfortunately for Gates, the narrative didn’t hold.
Media reports had Gates yelling at Sgt. James Crowley that Crowley had no idea who he was “messing with.” And yet it was really Gates who had no idea.
Had this been the typical cop, the kind of guy who was like my grandfather and those of his age who used the N-word as a common form of vernacular, this would have been a far different scenario.
What we really needed here was for Crowley to have been the guy who told racist jokes in the locker room, had at least one complaint in his jacket for excessive force and been known to get rough with local hookers and pimps. We needed the bribe-driven, dick-headed, ego cop to be at Gates’ door. Then we wouldn’t have to look any deeper. Essentially we needed the East Coast Mark Furhman.
However, this was the guy who was clean. He taught classes on racial profiling and the ills it evokes. As much as Gates wasn’t the “black” stereotype, Crowley wasn’t the “cop” stereotype.
The fact we can’t discuss this without getting rained on is just one of the many reasons why we, as a society, suck.
Others include what people have done toLucia Whalen, the woman who called 9-1-1 to alert the police. She called in as a concerned citizen and immediately became labeled as a racist.In the transcript of the call, she didn’t mention race until prompted by the dispatcher and even then she didn’t say, “Two big ol’ black ‘uns!” Of course, since both men turned out to be black, we’ve now folded that into the narrative as well.
We also suck because we’re not allowed to discuss that black, white, Hispanic, Asian or Martian has almost nothing to do with Gates’ constant pushing for an apology.
Gates needs to be right.
Trust me, I’ve had many a-colleague at the university level who are exactly like Gates and if they were any less black, they’d be translucent.
They are overbearing, maladjusted and have grown self-important on the backs of lesser colleagues. It’s not that they enjoy scholarly debate (one of the reasons we have a tenure process, although that’s been bastardized), they enjoy using whatever cognitive and hierarchical tools are at their disposal to browbeat someone into agreeing with them.
I don’t know him personally, but something tells me Henry Louis Gates hasn’t played a social game of cards in a long time where he didn’t have the best hand. This time, he had pocket kings while Crowley had pocket aces and despite his bluster, Gates can’t get Crowley to fold.
Race has become for us what communism was for the 1950s. You can’t talk about it logically, lest you be cast among the undesirables and labeled as so for life. Even starting this post, I wondered, “Will the FD crew read me differently now that I’m ‘going there?'”
We step more carefully because of it and that only continues to perpetuate the notion that race DOES make people different and they must be treated as so.
Had my father reacted the way Gates did on that night many years ago, he, too, probably would have had his ass hauled to jail. While the five guys he drinks beer with probably would have said, “Yeah, fucking bastards” anyone else would have asked him, “What the hell was wrong with you?”
He certainly wouldn’t have a beer with the cop, nor would he be in the Rose Garden doing it.