Whatever anyone thinks of the altercation between Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, a black man, and the police, one thing is true: the history of how police have treated black men is a bad one.
None of us know what really happened. The scrubbed choir-boy look of the arresting officer giving television interviews, basically exonerating himself of all wrong, didn’t move me. We in the African American community, and some in the white community, have seen that before.
Police have been known to harass black men, arrest them, and then lie about it. Even after swearing that they will tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, police have lied to protect their jobs, and police departments have lied and supported offending police officers in order to keep their departments together.
That’s the history, and it has not been forgotten.
On the other side, any African American mother with an ounce of sense tells her young boys what to do, what to say and not say, and how to say whatever he does say, when and if stopped by police. One does NOT antagonize the police. It’s suicidal. For men, I would suppose that’s hard, because it seemingly becomes a battle of egos. Machismo kicks in, and the young man stopped doesn’t want the cop to think he’s a punk.
If he thinks that way and acts like it, he’ll most likely be arrested.
So, mothers tell their sons to be quiet and polite, to bite their tongues but to get the name and badge number of the officer. If the encounter is a rough one, mothers advise their sons to get the information quietly.
Not that anyone thinks the officer will be addressed, but keeping quiet keeps one out of jail, and getting the badge number and name gives the citizen a sense of dignity lost in the encounter.
Professor Gates apparently didn’t follow the golden rules of police encounter. One police officer friend of mine said that the officer was wrong. He flat out said it was a false arrest, and he said that the officer was wrong in not giving Professor Gates his name and badge number when he was asked.
“You are absolutely supposed to give a citizen your name and badge number if and when they ask,” he said, “that’s why some officers will take off their badges sometimes because they know the rules.”
Hmmm. Nobody said anything about that being a part of procedure when they talked about how the Cambridge officer was following procedure in all he did.
But here’s the thing. Let’s say that the Cambridge officer was completely in the right. What handicaps him is the history of white officers with black men. There have simply been too many instances of white officers harassing black men, locking them up and then lying about it.
There have been too many “oops” shootings where a white officer, scared, has assumed that a black man has been dangerous, just because of his looks, and the result has been too many hasty shootings, resulting in too many wrongful deaths.
African Americans and other minorities know the history of black/white law enforcement encounters all too well. Professor Gates might very well have offended the white officer by accusing him of racism, but it’s the history welling up, spilling out and over. The question in the mind of a so-called “good” citizen, in his own home, having produced ID and proof of his status as a Harvard scholar, would, yes, be “are you harassing me because I am black?”
“Would we be going through this if I were white?” In the minds of us who are African American, the answer is “no,” and it is infuriating to know that no matter how “good” or “compliant” we try to be, no matter how much education we get or how well known we are, we are still, in the eyes and minds of too many, still second class citizens.
The unfortunate thing is that all white officers get clumped together, as do all black men. There is no distinction between individuals. It feels like, more than anything, that the Cambridge officer fell into a state of male ego as the other male confronted him. He, the officer, had the power, and used it. That probably happens a lot.
The fortunate thing, though, about this unfortunate encounter, is that it shows America that we are no way in a post racial society. Until we admit and deal with the hidden, subliminal prejudices that affect us all because of this country’s racism, we will never be able to move forward, African American man elected to the presidency notwithstanding.
And that’s a candid observation.