07.26.09

Gates’ Historical Baggage

Professor Gates’ overreaction was not because of his temperament. It is the consequence of centuries of abuse of blacks by those who hold power over them.

Read other takes on Gates' arrest from Daily Beast writers.

While the firestorm of controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. will soon tone back down to a slow simmer, the underlying issues that caused it to ignite in the first place will be with us far into the foreseeable future … and probably beyond. Our national racial animus is akin to that crazy uncle families prefer to keep locked away in the attic—because he so embarrasses us when he’s glimpsed by the public.

This old coot even caused our normally sure-footed and deft president to step into dog poop by chiming in on an issue that should have been left in the province of the local authorities and news commentators of every ilk and stripe—yours truly being one of them. Rest assured that when President Obama used the term “teachable moment” in his non-apology, he was also referring to himself. He most assuredly learned something from all of this.

We blacks didn’t create this charged, hostile racial environment … we can only react to it.

However, given the racial climate (which Obama’s elevation to the presidency has done little to change the tone, tenor, or temperature of) that has existed in America since the country’s very founding—with what Condi Rice so aptly termed as “our national birth defect” of slavery—there is little wonder that our commander-in-chief (as well as Professor Gates) might misread a confrontation between a black man and white police officer and label the ensuing fallout as racially motivated. Indeed, the most damnable thing about being a black man in America is the need for the constant reading of mindsets and intentions when we encounter a white person we are not familiar with. Is he, or is he not, a racist? Did he mean what I thought he meant, or was it just my defense mechanisms working overtime? I can tell you that it’s damn tiring, and potentially embarrassing.

One of my more sobering moments as an adult was when I discovered that a white that I had mentally labeled as a racist turned out not to be one. Fortunately I had not shared my belief with anyone, so my mortification remained sequestered within me—but it was truly a “teachable moment.” I’m now very careful how I use such a loaded and pejorative term to describe anyone—even a white cop in a testosterone-charged incident.

By way of example, this past weekend I was one of three producers of a huge music festival here in Cleveland. Streets surrounding the event are blocked off by police officers, and access was only via a pass hung around the neck on a lanyard. I had to take my vehicle and make a run to a local hardware store for an emergency item, and waved at the officer manning the barricades when I left, telling him I’d be right back. Upon my return another officer (who happened to be white) was in the vehicle blocking the entrance, and when I drove towards the barricade instead of turning as the detour sign indicated, he, with a degree of aggravation, pointed and yelled, “Can’t you see the sign?”

I lifted the pass up for him to see and said, in the most even of tones, “I just left to get supplies, I’m on the crew. I need to drop them off.”

Even more aggravated that he had to get off of his butt, he came over to my pickup truck, reached in to take a closer look at the pass, and gave it a stern tug in the process. Thus satisfied that I was not an interloper, he moved his vehicle and allowed me to pass. Since I was in the employ of an elected official who is in a tight reelection race come this fall (and certainly wouldn’t appreciate a dust-up between me and a white officer right there in the street), as much as I wanted to brace this dude up, I let the incident slide. A black officer, whom I’ve known for years, was standing nearby, and when I asked him what was up with his brother officer, he said, “Nah, he ain’t a racist, he’s just an asshole with everybody.”

This is not to suggest that Officer Crowley is either/or. It is to suggest that we blacks bring historical baggage to any such confrontation; as a defense mechanism—based on centuries of ill-treatment at the hands of the instruments which have been used to suppress us (the police)—we’re always braced for the worse in any such encounter and therefore may be sensitive to a fault. But, again, we blacks didn’t create this charged, hostile racial environment—we can only react to it.

A month or so ago, a very good friend (who happens to be white) said to me in earnest frustration when the subject race came up after a splendid dinner, “Why don’t you guys just let this race thing go?”

I replied, now aggravated myself, that we blacks would love nothing better than to “just let this race thing go,” but “go” where? Not wanting to ruin an exceptional evening of conviviality, I simply changed the subject rather than saying, “I can’t help it if the racial climate you whites have created in this country now makes you uncomfortable, but as long as a black female only makes 67 cents for every dollar a white male earns for the exact same work (these are government statistics you can look up for yourself) then how can we just let it go?”

Needless to say that I didn’t go on to list all of the other brutal inequalities (and grievances both petite and grand) that centuries of institutionalized racism has created: Beatings, lynching, and a criminal justice system we should be ashamed of. We were not going to solve anything with both of us having imbibed probably one glass of wine too many; and, more importantly, we might have wrecked a budding friendship by touching this societal third rail.

So, while the Gates incident has sparked a long overdue (and much needed) call for a frank national dialogue on race relations in America, we have to be very careful in how we approach our crazy uncle in the attic. We blacks, with our centuries of legitimate pent-up grievances vis-à-vis race, have to be careful that we don’t begin to beat on white folks like they’re all evil piñatas over the issue of race or they will simply withdraw from the conversation—leaving us to make the sound of one hand clapping.

Indeed, the aforementioned is largely the reason we black and white Americans have not engaged in very much meaningful dialogue on race to this point: It’s very painful to all sides. However, with the rise of globalism and the shifting of capital and resources around the world, we, as a nation, can no longer afford to be hobbled in this brutal race for economic hegemony by the lingering effects of our national birth defect. Jingoistic hubris can only last so long, take us so far. It’s now an economic imperative that we learn to talk to—and not at—each other.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.