Did you hear that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is planning to write a book about the harrowing four hours he spent incarcerated by The Man like some common hooligan? He even has a working title: Beluga on Ice.
Ok, that’s not true. Although Gates has said he is thinking about doing a documentary on racial profiling, and he has admitted that he never thought much about the issue until it (supposedly) happened to him.
But the gag about caviar is believable given the elitist and arrogant way that “Skip” Gates has conducted himself since his arrest on his front porch on July 16 by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department.
To recap, Crowley apparently thought Gates needed an “attitude adjustment” after the professor, according to the police report, called him a racist, tried to go over the sergeant’s head by phoning the police chief amid the confrontation, and finally offered to talk to Crowley’s “mama” outside. Gates denies that he was rude and uncooperative but admits he did say something like “this is what happens to black men in America.”
All due respect, but it’s becoming clear that Gates hasn’t the foggiest idea what happens to most black men in America. Why would he? They don’t teach that in the Ivy League.
For now, apparently, all is well after the so-called “suds summit” at the White House, where President Obama pulled together both Gates and Crowley over cold beers. In fact, while neither man has apologized for his behavior, the two men seem to be BFFs. Boston’s newest odd couple is talking about having dinner together with their families or taking in a sporting event.
At least that’s what Gates recently told a roomful of 150 or so people gathered at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, where Gates was enthusiastically hocking his latest book.
“I asked him if he would have lunch with me one on one,” Gates said about Crowley. “I asked him maybe we could go to a Red Sox game together, maybe could go to a Celtic game together, you know, maybe we could have dinner with our families, you know, why not?”
So far, so good. Then Gates ruined it with a dash of condescension:
“I offered to get his kids into Harvard,” he said, “if he doesn’t arrest me again.”
The mostly white crowd (ever been to Martha’s Vineyard?) roared with laughter. From where they sit, skin color isn’t as relevant as class. Gates is one of them. The professor even owns a summerhouse on the island. You can easily imagine that, after Gates’ talk, his fellow Vineyardites approached him and expressed sympathy for the dreadful experience he endured at the hands of a lowly civil servant.
Some of Gates’ supporters in the African-American community aren’t laughing. Those folks stuck their neck out and defended the Harvard professor, both in private and in public. Many of them used the case to relay their own stories about being singled out or even roughed up by law enforcement officers over the years. Black columnists and television commentators rallied around Gates and urged him to use what happened to him to begin a national conversation on racial profiling. Some even urged Gates to sue the Cambridge Police Department to keep the issue in the public eye for months.
First, this incident wasn’t about racial profiling; the only “teachable moment” here was a lesson in how not to talk to a police officer. Hopefully, Gates has learned at least that much from all this.
Secondly, Gates will probably never file a lawsuit. That would render Obama’s “happy hour diplomacy” a failure and embarrass the nation’s first black president, which Gates won’t do. Besides, the Cambridge Police Department would have to defend itself and that could include going public with what is alleged to be a yet-unreleased recording of the confrontation that it reportedly has in its possession. And if the police report is accurate, that could be embarrassing to Gates.
Nonetheless, judging from what has been said and written as of late, there are many in the African-American community who expected Gates to do more with his 15 minutes than drink beer and plan buddy outings. And now they’re disappointed and a little heartsick.
They include Ron Walters, PhD, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland College Park and a contributor to Blackcommenter.com.
Before the summit, Walters predicted nothing substantial would come of it.
“President Obama, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley will have their beer in the White House,” he wrote, “but it will only be a symbolic gesture, lacking the force to confront the monumental crime of racial profiling by the police perpetrators that has locked up tens of thousands of blacks in American prisons.”
That is, tens of thousands of blacks who don’t know the president, who don’t summer on the Vineyard, who don’t write books or produce documentaries, and who couldn’t get a cop’s kids into Harvard, even if they wanted to.
If Gates is looking for subject matter for his next project, I’d recommend that he take the next ferry out of the Vineyard and interview more people in the African-American community. Even after a career of speaking on their behalf and interpreting their experience to white audiences, it seems he still doesn’t know the first thing about them.
Take it from a cop’s kid who managed to get into Harvard without Gates’ help.