Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gates to Gates

In 1991 Rodney King, an African American was beaten by four white members of the Los Angeles police department. Unlike many claims of "police brutality" this was caught on tape and led to the trial of the four officers.LAPD chief Darryl Gates insited that his men were merely doing their duty. In essence he asked that the public believe him rather than their lying eyes. The tape revealed the officers tasering King and then using their nightsticks to beat him into submission. They claimed that he was under the influence of drugs and was resisting arrest. The officers argument prevailed at trail and their acquitals touched off an eruption of violence and rage in the black community of Los Angles. Riots lasted for days resulting dozens of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

Chief Gates moved to the center of the controversy and his many appearances on television did nothing to assuage the mood of the black community. In fact, many of his statements seemed to show a lack of sensitivity to the issue of race and the historic interplay between police and the black community. For years I have heard my black friends joke in a rueful manner about being stopped by the police for "driving while black." That is the term used to label the reality that blacks are stopped and arrested by the police at a much higher rate than whites. Many times these arrests are with the flimiest of cause. The issue of "racial profiling" has emerged from this concern.

Now, in mid 2009 we have seen another Gates hit the news because of this issue. The time it is Professor Henry Gates of Harvard who, in one of the many ironies of this case, is considered to be the leading American scholars of race. He was arrested by the Cambridge Police, shortly after trying to enter his own home. It seems a neighbor had seen two black men with backpacks trying to force the front door of the house. The men were professor Gates and his driver who ws tryig to help me force open the stuck door. Dr. Gates was inside his home when the polic arrived and became incensed at the officers for accosting him in his own home. They claim he became loud and difficult and they arrested him for this behavior, cuffed him and took him to jail.

This has caused another firestorm across the nation with many lining up behind the officer, who ironically was a model officer and a trainer for the department on racial sensitivity issues. Officer Crowley claims he was merely following procedure which procuced echoes of Los Angeles in the minds of many African Americans. Most African Americans I have heard comment on the case see it merely a one more evidence of the disparate tratment of blacks in this society. Even President Obama has been caught up in the controversy when he suggested that the Cambridge Police were "stupid" for arresting a man for breaking into his own home. He has sense disavosed his language but continued to suggest the incident was troubling.

As with any issue the details of this incident for open to interpretation. Perhaps Professor Gates was treated more harshly simply because he was black. Perhaps Officer Crowley indeed followed the letter of the polcy manual. Or perhaps we had two men indulging in some "macho maashup" letting their egos and different perspective escalate a situation beyond its normal limits.

What is clear is that while America has come a long way in our relations between the races, the racial lens is still applied first when incidents like this occur. All this comes on the heels of the hearings for Puerto Rican Sonia Sotomayor for supreme court justice. At those hearings and in the run-up to them, the nation was "treated" to a litany of white men, many of whom had demonstrated their own racial insensitivity in the past suggesting that Sotomayor was a "reverse racist" for suggesting that a wise Latina might be a better judege that a white man.

What all American's should stipulate, up front, is that race still matters in this society. The election of a mixed race president who has addressed this issue quite eloquently, has not healed our divisions. In fact, his election seems to have raised the racial barometer for many whites. I seriously doubt if there is one person of color in the country who at one time or another has not been subjected to treatment based upon their race. This could be from being arrested unjustly or merely, as President Obama described in one of his books, waitng for the valet to deliver a car and having a white person throw him the keys, thinking he was the valet because he was black. And there is not a white person in America who hasn't at one time or another reacted to a person of color out of that lens rather than seeing beyond it. This could range from the ugly racism of jokes or actions, or merely getting steamed when a person of color seems to slow down when they cross the street in front of your car. Our nation has a long, dark history of racism. We fought a civil war, in part, because of it. We have had ongoing viloence because of it. It has cost us money and moral authority. And it has been a topic largely ignored in public discourse because it is so fraught with peril and pain. But we will never get past it until we brave the peril and face the pain.

Perhaps, taking a lead from President Obama and incidents like the one played out in Cambrige these las few days, we can open up the dialogue between the races. It is clear that we are not in a "post racial" time as some thought after Obama's election but maybe we can finally get to the the starting post of shedding light and understanding about this difficult issue. At last maybe we can follow the words of Rodney King in the midst of the riots,"can't we all just get along?"