Friday, July 24, 2009

Honest Conversations

Today, the President contacted a police officer who is white, and an eminent scholar who is black, both of whom are the parties in a recent and highly publicized misunderstanding. Having misjudged the actions of the former during a press conference, perhaps the President was hoping to make up for it. But before we go any further...

I went to a Catholic high school that was one hundred percent white. At least it was for my first two years. Then a black guy was transferred to the class behind me. He was the only non-white at the school for a year, maybe two. I didn't know him all that well, but he seemed like a nice enough fellow, wanting to do right by everyone. As the order of sisters who founded our school was based in New Orleans, come the spring of every year, we had a formal dance to celebrate Mardi Gras. There was a court of senior men and women, two of whom were crowned king and queen. And although the black guy was not particularly active in the school, nor did he possess any distinctive leadership qualities, he was elected to the court.

As far as anyone could tell, his being the only African-American amidst an entirely white student body, was the only reason there was to honor him. This was in the early 1970s, and some parts of the country had integrated their public schools only a few years earlier. So, if you are a man or woman of color, I have a confession to make, concerning white people in general, particularly white males.

We don't like being accused of racism.

We may have undue prejudice toward other ethnic groups, and it may determine the company we keep, whom we hire to work for us, or whom we elect to public office. We may, in fact, be little different than those who turned dogs and water hoses on civil rights demonstrators in the South in the 1960s. Don't ask me how, but some of us can live with that. It's the thought of being called on it that scares us more than anything else.

So you might say, well, you're afraid of being caught. But there's more.

We may not go out of our way to avoid being racist, but we will do anything to avoid being accused. We will hire and promote people of color to prevent them from complaining, passing over others more worthy if necessary. We will show them considerable latitude in their public behavior, whether at a restaurant, or in the workplace. Seventeen years ago, I was assaulted by my supervisor, who was black. There were witnesses. There was a police incident report. Normally, he would have been fired the next day, but this wasn't normal. Agency officials said I had no cause for complaint. He was promoted the following year.

This is what some white people will do, and much more, to avoid hearing anything that sounds like: "It's because I'm black, isn't it?"

Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr, knows this. That's why, according to Rich Lowry of the National Review...

Any passer-by seeing a man breaking into a home without knowing that he lives there might reasonably suspect a burglary, whatever the man’s race, religion, creed or national origin... According to the police report, when Sgt James Crowley asked Gates — now in his house — to come out on the front porch and speak to him because there had been a report of a break-in, Gates replied angrily, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?”

No, Professor, it's because you're an Ivy League poser who forgot how to behave in the real world. When a man identifies himself as a police officer, you don't give him any lip, even when you think you have a reason. He has a gun, and you don't. We are a nation of laws, and he enforces them. He is also the only thing standing between your sorry ass and someone who really WOULD break into your house. Things will get sorted out later, and you'll live to tell your side of the story.

Sometimes I walk by the White House. I'm on the sidewalk, it's a lovely day, and I'm minding my own damn business. A police officer -- Secret Service Uniformed Division, or United States Park Police -- tells me to walk on the other side of the street. I could ask him why, but I'll probably just piss him off. Not because the question is inflammatory, but because they don't necessarily tell him why, and even if they did, it doesn't matter.

But hey, I'm a white guy, right? And it's perfectly alright to misjudge me in politically-correct America, so what the hell do I know? Well, you don't have to be white to see it this way.

One man who does is Dr Boyce Watkins, who doesn't feel sorry for Gates.

Basically, this situation may have been a battle of two egos: One of them from a Harvard professor who seemed to feel that he should not be disrespected by a lowly police officer; the other from an officer who seemed to feel that a powerful Black professor could be treated differently from a powerful White professor. What is abundantly clear is that this is NOT the case of a poor Black male being exploited by the racist, classist power structure.

The other is Mansfield Frazier, a former newspaper editor from Cleveland.

Fortunately for him, he was in Cambridge and not inner-city Boston or some other largely black metropolitan area, which thankfully boded against the situation escalating into one in which deadly force was used. But the simple fact is, under different circumstances, it could have; our American history is littered with the bodies of black men whose only crime was that they didn’t know when to just shut the hell up.

It's probably fair to say, that young black men will still have a harder time flagging down a cab than a young white man. It can also be asserted that our prisons house a disproportionate number of men of color, relative to the overall population. And maybe the President can drop what he's doing with the Nation's business long enough, to help two men accidentally pitted against each other, to see each other in a different light.

But before they do that, everyone at that table will have to be honest; with themselves, with each other. We ask a lot of the men who answer the call to protect us. If we ask them to be fair and just, we can use who or what we are as a wedge for an ideological advantage. That may gain points for us, but they may hesitate to protect the next citizen, and the world as a whole will lose.

Which means that nobody wins.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: It should be noted that this writer is a close companion of a woman who, as a native of the Philippines, would be classified as being of "Asian/Pacific" ethinicity. To the degree that he might be credibly accused of a racist mentality, such a relationship would be unlikely.]

1 comment:

mrsdarwin said...

If one of those secret service men you pass in front of the White House is a young guy with red hair, be extra-respectful. That might be my brother-in-law.