Thursday, July 23, 2009

At the Gates of Distraction

In previous blogs I have referred to racism as a "distraction." Of course, it's something far worse than that, but my point is that the perception of racism can distract educated African Americans from achieving their full potential -- even when the impediments presented by racists should be relatively easy to overcome.


I assume that everyone who reads this blog is aware that Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., was arrested while trying to enter his his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts without a key late at night; and I assume everyone is also aware that the charges against him were subsequently dismissed. Even President Obama commented on this unfortunate incident in a press conference.

I write this blog to suggest that educated African Americans, especially African American males, should not be distracted by this incident. Nobody really believed that President Obama's election in November 2008 banished racism and racists from the land, but neither should anybody have to be reminded that class also matters. Had the eminent Dr. Gates been a high school drop-out instead of a Harvard professor, he would probably still be in jail awaiting trial. Indeed, most of the Black males who languish in disproportionate numbers in the nation's prisons and on death row are the victims of both race and class. I write this blog to suggest that middle class African American males should not confuse themselves into thinking that the distracting racism that we face is the same life-threatening evil that still confronts our less educated brothers.

Let me tell you a couple of personal stories. Correction, let me give you the highlights of one story, but give you the full details of another.

A. What I Didn't Say ...

Way back in the early 1970's when I was a doctoral student at Harvard and living in Cambridge, Mass., I threw a party at which events got out of hand. Let's just say that when the cops knocked at my door at 2 a.m. in the morning in response to a neighbor's complaint, they saw strobe lights blazing, heard Jimi Hendrix blasting from a pair of speakers the size of small refrigerators, and could smell something fragrant in the air. My future flashed before my eyes: I would be arrested and expelled from Harvard. So I put on my most respectful "Stepin Fetchit" and turned down the sound as the cops had requested.

They smiled, left right away, and a few years later I became "Doctor" B. ... :-)

B. What I Did Say ...

Now fast-forward to 2001. When my older daughter called me from Bethesda, Maryland at around 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, I was in my office in Silver Spring, Maryland, deeply engrossed in writing some code for a distributed Web-based application. I told her to leave the car in the parking lot behind the Farmer's Market, and I would pick it up in a couple of hours. I was so engrossed in my coding that when I next looked at the clock it was almost 1 a.m. in the morning. (I was and still am in pretty good shape, so I can still lock in for long hours when the work really gets interesting.) I logged off, ran down to the Red Line Metro, arrived at the Bethesda station around 1:30 a.m., and started walking south on the south-bound side of Wisconsin Avenue.

Suddenly I saw a squad car driving north on the south-bound side of the street at high speed. When I reached the next corner, I was startled when it screeched to halt right in front of me. The cop looked me straight in the face, then made a left and roared down the side street.

Two blocks later, I saw the same squad car again driving towards me on the wrong side of the street. When I reached the corner, he again screeched to a halt in front of me, looked me in the face, then took a left down the side street.

At the next corner I crossed Wisconsin Avenue to get to the parking lot behind the Farmer's Market area. In the daytime, this is a very safe place, with office buildings on two sides and teeming with people. But at night ... I heard a car driving into the parking lot behind me. Guess who? Turning, I could see that, yes, it was the same cop who had been stalking me. The high beams of his car made it difficult to see him when he got out, but I could see him well enough to see that he was not an ordinary cop; he was dressed in black from head to toe and carrying a gun. In other words, he was SWAT-type who was "dressed to kill."

"Sir, would you please come over here. I have to ask you a few questions because you are a suspect in a crime that happened a few moments ago a few blocks away."

Then, from out of nowhere, I heard a sarcastic, angry voice snarling a reply: "What crime am I suspected of committing? WALKING WHILE BLACK?"

I could not believe what I just said. I have never been a smart mouth with cops because I have always known what angry cops could do to me. Where did all that rage come from? I hadn't been drinking. Then a small voice inside my head noted: "It's still here because you're still Black."

As he stepped closer I could see that my situation was worse than I thought. He was not only a White cop, he was a short White cop and I'm a big Black man, and we were in a deserted parking lot. This time the future that flashed before my eyes was far more painful -- He'd beat me to a pulp or perhaps he'd shoot me ... in a deserted parking lot with no witnesses.

But I got lucky. He didn't do anything. He merely clicked a button on the small flashlight attached to his belt and focused its beam on my face. "I have to question you because a cab driver was robbed and beaten by a passenger a few blocks from here and you fit the description of the robber."

"What did the robber look like?"

"He was a tall, African American male in his mid-thirties."

Suddenly, my panic dissolved into giggles at the absurdity of the situation. This cop had looked me in the face twice on Wisconsin Avenue and now had a flashlight shining in my face, the same face that for the previous ten years had prompted obnoxious theater ushers to ask me if I wanted to buy a "Senior Ticket" at the movies. I couldn't believe this was happening, so I protested: "For Christ's sake, man, I'm 60!!!"

He hesitated, then replied: "Can you prove that? Do you have some identification?"

I handed him my driver's license. He looked, and looked again. "Gee, you really are 60. Sorry about that" ... then he shrugged, got back into his squad car, and drove away.

C. The Moral of These Tales

So what can we learn from my experiences? ... and from Skip Gates?

First, we should never, ever let the rage that seethes within us, even into our sixties, reach the surface. And second, the probable consequences of failure to keep that rage bottled up for Dr. Gates and for Dr. B. will usually be far more benign than for our working class and underclass brothers. For us, racism is a distraction that may derail our careers; for them, racism is still a life-threatening evil.