Saturday, August 15, 2009

Another case of American racism?

guest post by Alvaro Huerta, doctoral student at UC Berkeley

Americans love to claim the death of racism. Conservatives in particular commonly posit that there’s no further need for affirmative action or so-called special treatment of racialminorities in higher education, government jobs and other areas, given the progress made in this country.

As someone who grew up in East Los Angeles housing projects, who attended elite universities--UCLA and now UC Berkeley--I often hear the “end-of-racism” claim in graduate seminars, academic conferences and in the news from conservatives, politicians and average Americans. Now that we’ve elected a black president, conservative political pundits argue racism has been defeated. The nomination of the first Latina to the Supreme Court, the argument goes, represents the end of discrimination in the U.S.

While millions of Americans were finally relieved to put racism in the dustbin of history, washing away all of that whiteguilt from over two hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation of racial minorities in barrios and ghettoes, white-flight to the suburbs, lack of minorities in higher education and high concentrations of minorities in prisons, here comes black Harvard scholar Henry Loius Gates Jr. to spoil the “victory party."

How dare the 58-year-old, black professor enter his house without a key and allegedly demand the name of the arresting officer? Doesn’t he know that providing proof of employment and residence doesn’t suffice for a black man in a white-dominated university town?

Sarcasm aside, what bothers me most about the national discourse surrounding the arrest of this prominent black man centers on how blame is being equally distributed on both parties, Cambridge police James Crowley and Harvard Professor Gates. If only both parties had acted rationally, many Americans assert, including President Obama after retreating from his assertion that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” then this “regrettable” incident could’ve been avoided.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

Based on the information provided to the public, it’s clear to me that we’re talking about an unequal power relation where Crowley abused his power by arresting Gates. On the one hand, we have a white police officer with a gun, with backup at his disposal, while, on the other, we have a 58-year-old black man in his own home, posing a danger to no one.

In addition, a recently released 911 tape shows that the woman caller, Lucia Whalen, stated she was not sure if the two men who forced their way into the house were actually breaking in or just had a problem with a key. Now, if these two men, one described by Whalen as someone who “looked kind of Hispanic” were actually breaking into the house in broad daylight through the front door, why did she patiently wait outside for the police to arrive?

Based on this scenario, the only issue the Crowley needed to resolve was whether Gates actually lived in the yellow house on Ware Street by obtaining proper identification. What was the need for Crowley to call campus police once Gates provided his Harvard ID and driver’s license, something Crowley writes in his police report? His report reminds me of high school bully who goes to the principal’s office and plays the role of victim.

Apparently, Crowley was just “doing his job” and represents a victim of verbal abuse by an elderly black man, claiming that Gates called him a racist and said to him, “Yah, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” For a moment I thought Crowley was talking about the rapper Snoop Dogg and not a respected professor from an Ivy League university.

While I found many contradictions in Crowley’s report, for the sake of argument let’s say Gates called him a racist and launched a “yo mama” joke at him. What kind of country do we live in where you--whether a professor or janitor--can be arrested in your own home for expressing how you feel to an authority figure, despite not posing a threat? Should we then arrest all the conservatives who called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist?

Finally, if Crowley told the truth in this report, why were the charges immediately dropped? This makes no sense. If Gates broke the law, as Crowley maintains without apology, he should be prosecuted regardless of his privileged status as a Harvard professor.

Instead of being invited to drink some beers with Gates, Vice-President Biden and President Obama at the White House, Crowley should be investigated to determine whether he broke the law for filing a false police report and unjustifiably arresting a black man who just happens to be a distinguished scholar, in his own home.

1 comment: