I'm sure that by now, most of my readers have heard about the arrest (and subsequent dropped charges) of the most famous black professor in America, and perhaps the whole world, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Given my blog's topic, what interests me as much as the question (which to me is not a question) of whether his arrest was racist, are the reactions to it that I'm hearing and reading from white people. Those who seem to know a thing or two about how racism really works in America are mostly either as outraged as I am, or withholding complete judgment until more facts come in.
Many others, though, seem to lack the understanding that because they're white, they'll simply never know what it's like to be black in America. To have to be aware of that, so much of the time, while navigating largely white spaces. Like say, a wealthy neighborhood near Harvard University. Even if it's your own damn neighborhood.
So, you finally pull up to your house after a fifteen-hour flight from China, and then your front door is stuck. Damn! Then you ask the man who drove you home for assistance in getting it open, aware as you do so that your white neighbors' eyes are probably on you, feeling physically exhausted from your travels and now suddenly tense about this damn door. Eventually you manage to get inside, and then a police officer is knocking on the door and expressing doubts that you're the real resident of your own house! When you go to get the ID that he demands, he follows you inside, and when you show it to him, he turns around to leave with nary a word, let alone a respectful or regretful one. And then when you get to your front door, you see a whole bunch of other police on your doorstep!
Well then, after all that, who wouldn't start yelling things about what so often happens to black people in America? (Assuming he actually did start yelling -- it does look like he was yelling after getting handcuffed for being "loud and tumultuous.")
But here I am as I write this, imagining what it must've been like for Professor Gates that day. I think I should stop right there, and I probably should've stopped sooner. I should stop because I'm white, and he's black, and I'll just never know what such moments are like for black people.
So I shouldn't say, as a lot of white people are saying, that Gates should've shown some restraint, and then everything would've been all right. Or that the actions of the police had nothing to do with his being black, and that he should've instead been "grateful that somebody was investigating a possible break-in at his home." Or that his acting in any other way than completely calm and obedient was what caused his arrest for "disorderly conduct." Or that he probably made a ruckus because he knew it would get national attention, and so he "played the race card."
Because I'm white, I shouldn't say things like what this white columnist says, in a completely white-framed discussion of the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
This doesn't appear to be racism. It sounds to me like a colossal case of extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of a distinguished African American historian who happens to teach at Harvard, and who certainly should've known better.
That right there. That too is so white, isn't it? Talking about a black man with a PhD, a Harvard professorship and a mile-long list of accomplishments about how he "should've known better." Talking about him like he's little more than a child.
To think that if I were in a black man's shoes in a moment like that, I would act differently, more "sensibly," seems ridiculous. To think that my perspective is basically the same as his. To think that I could really have much of any idea at all what it's like to be black in such all-too-familiar (for black people) moments. And yet, I think we white people do that all the time.
Having read the police report and a lot of insightful discussions of this event, it seems very likely to me that the police did act in racist ways, whether consciously or unconsciously. And then, so did a lot of white people when they heard about this event, as they also do when they hear about others like it.
I think that the moment when their racism kicks in, and causes them to say naive, foolish things, is right when they think they know what that would be like, because they're basically imagining themselves in that moment. But then, because they're white, they really have no clue about what it's like to be on the wrong side in such moments. And so, they should stop thinking and talking as if they do.