Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black Man Walking

I’m looking forward to the boys having that glass of beer at the White House. I would love to be present to listen as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., affectionately known as “Skip”, Sgt. James Crowley, the dude who arrested “Skip”, and President Barack Obama, the dude who stuck his foot in his mouth, come together to share thoughts on how Gates getting arrested has become the biggest story since MJ died.

From the beginning the arrest of the celebrated Harvard scholar was placed in the racial profiling box. People from around the country are incensed that a black man can get arrested in his own house. Making matters worse is this black man isn’t your typical case study of black folks pulling the race card. Something went wrong up in Cambridge. I could hear the doves crying. If a Ph. D can’t keep you out of jail, what’s a brother with a GED supposed to do?

Obama decided to throw in his commentary during a national news conference. “They acted stupidly,” he said, obviously enraged at how his good friend had been treated. How does a man get thrown in jail while making comments from his own house? It’s hard to keep that card in your pocket when faced with the facts.

Fact one-black man. Fact two-white police. Fact three-go to jail. For those not mired by memories of skirmishes with the law, it all seems so simple. A man should never, ever, under any circumstances, question the man with the badge. The assumption is the police are present to protect and uphold the law. As much as we all want to honor and respect the role of the police, there is too much personal and communal evidence to contradict that claim.

The stories of these many clouds of witnesses are hushed before they have a chance to become a part of a larger body of dialogue related to the grip of stereotypes about black men. Black men get stopped by the police for no reason. Black men become the target of security guards at the mall. Black men are watched and followed for no other reason than being tied to the most feared cluster in America-black men.

Time builds rage. It comes after each occasion one gets stopped for no reason, watched for no reason, devalued for being a black man. Many can’t understand the rage that comes after being watched or stopped. It has happened to me on a number of occasions. I’ve been stopped for driving while black. I have been followed for shopping while black. I have even been stopped for walking while black.

It hurts being stopped for walking in your own neighborhood. It happened close to a decade ago, but the memory still haunts me. Like so many of my neighbors I took advantage of the walking trail in the Woodcroft subdivision of Durham, NC. An officer stopped me one day and asked where I was going. “Home,” I responded.

I was walking home. I was taking a stroll to reduce the stress caused from dealing with outlandish circumstances in both my life and in the lives of people I worked with. I didn’t deserve to be stopped for walking. What I needed was time alone to meditate. I needed time to reflect on my work. I needed space, alone, to unload the pain caused after witnessing countless people caught up in cycles of frustration-addiction, abuse, poverty, incarceration, death and fear. I walked and prayed searching for answers after enduring the despondency of one day of disappointment stacked on top of the previous day of the same.

I needed a reminder of God’s presence in the hub of my pain. Each step, each breath, and each teardrop sought sanctuary from the sadness that comes with the work I do. There, walking down the manicured landscape of Woodcroft Parkway, I tried my best to forget, for a moment, the stack of ills was too heavy for me to carry. I walked in search of some comfort from the sorrows of those residing in the North East Central Durham community. “God, grant me the courage and strength to keep pressing forward,” I prayed. “Give me reason to believe that those over there, on the other side of this place where I live, will break free from the misery caused by living with their lacks.”

Then it happened. A reminder. A reminder that my living in isolation from those who fill victimized by their human condition did not protect me from the perceptions my skin stirred. In that moment I was no different from those living with less. The police stopped me because of an assumption linked to my race. The rage stirred in me. I stood in shock as the officer calculated my worth. I fought back anger and tears. This was not supposed to happen out here.

I calmly kept the rage inside. Soon it was over. The walk home left me pondering the work of Elis Cose. I had recently read his book The Rage of the Privileged Class. I felt that rage brewing. None of it mattered, it seemed. The work done to make a difference, the neighborhood where I lived, the degrees earned, being named “Tar Heel of the Week”, all of the community accolades and boards I served on-none of it mattered. In that moment, I was measured by the externals-black man walking.

It’s difficult to put in words how it feels when none of what you have done matters. That rage brews deep in the belly of those who have fought through all the stereotypes coming from those incapable of understanding the burden black men carry. It’s hard to explain how painful it feels when you catch Hell in your own house. It’s one thing to endure it over there, but leave me alone when I’m at home. This is my rekindling place. This is the one place that should be an oasis after dealing with the feedback of those who think they have license to attack the work I do.

Maybe a glass of beer will help explain all of this. What Sgt. Crowley did may not have been about race, but it hurts just the same.


  1. Summary:

    1. You have been discriminated against because of assumptions connected to race.

    2. Many black men (and women) have been discriminated against because of assumptions connected to race.

    3. Therefore, the Gates incident must have been discrimination because of race.

    When you took Logic 101 in college, they would not have allowed you to assume #3 was true based on #1 and #2. To do so is, in itself, a form of racism. Dr. Gates overzealous reaction no doubt came about because he made the same conclusion.

    Why is it that Sgt Crowley's police comrades, many of them African-American, were unanimous in his defence? First, they knew him and his character, having observed him over several years, and did not think him a racist. Second, they thought like police officers. When you are called to a house with a potential burglary in progress, you are on high alert. Many police officers get killed following up seemingly routine complaints. Many burglars, caught in the act, claim that they are the actual residents of the house. The initial call mentioned TWO men breaking in the front door. Until the location and identity of the second "intruder" is known, the police are still alert. Professor Gates did not take into account that a true burglar might have forced him to the front door and told him to tell the police that everything was all right on threat of his life. Until the police establish who the second person is, they must still be on alert.

    Of course, Gates knew nothing of police procedure, so he made his own racially based assumption that a white cop was prejudicially harassing a black man. And, Gates was of a higher social status and therefore felt a double degree of anger.

    As a Boston black expert in discrimination noted, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." It isn't always about race, even when your personal experience has sensitized you to know that sometimes it is about race. Obama jumped to the same illogical conclusions as you did, so you're in good company.

    Once the facts were made public, the largely liberal press has been bending over backward to explain that Gate's and Obama's reactions were justified, even as they exclude or ignore facts and police procedural policies in doing so. Sgt. Crowley's fellow black officers know better and have risen to his defense.

    All of this means that even though we haven't reached a post-racial society yet, both blacks and whites have made progress. And, the racism door swings both ways.

  2. The world is always seen through the prisms of our experiences or our concerns for others.

    For the most part, liberals have plugged the Gates incident into the unfair-racial-profiling template, and proceeded to call for blacks and whites to "listen to each other's narratives" and other fuzzy niceties, even after it was determined that police racism probably had little to do with the event.

    Most conservatives, on the other hand, were following their own "narrative," the one in which racism is often exaggerated and the real victim is the unassuming common man scorned by the deference-demanding "liberal elite." This puts Gates in the "Ivy League big shot" role, which he of course assumed himself rather readily. After all, Cambridge, Mass., is home to a particularly obnoxious combination of left wing orthodoxy and upper-class entitlement.

    Gates demands that Sgt. Crowley "beg for his forgiveness." Doesn't it sound great when a rich guy who summers on the Vineyard asks a working class cop to "beg"?

    So, how one interprets and reacts to the Gates incident, really does depend on your background. Carl, the end of your essay indicated you were hurt by Crowley's actions even though you admit they may have had nothing to do with race, but they did stir some bad memories and associated emotions within you. But I'm sure you can see that there may be others who have different bad memories and emotions based on a different life experience and, as such, interpret this incident in another way.

    All of us have to stop being so quick to judgement of others and make an honest attempt at understanding different points of view.

  3. Coda:

    Today's news, AP: "For his part, Gates said he and Crowley had been caught up as characters in a much larger narrative about race over which they had no control.

    "It is incumbent upon Sgt. Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us," Gates said in a statement. He said their task must be to foster sympathy among Americans about "the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand."

    In Massachusetts, meanwhile, a black sergeant who was with Crowley at Gates' home said he's been maligned as an "Uncle Tom" for supporting the actions of his white colleague, according to an e-mail that CNN said it received from the sergeant. The officer, Leon Lashley, said he "spoke the truth" about the arrest, and he said Gates should consider whether he "may have caused grave and potentially irreparable harm to the struggle for racial harmony."

  4. It seems like there are 4 possibilities here:
    1. Gates is right, Crowley is wrong
    2. Crowley is right, Gates is wrong
    3. They were both right
    4. They were both wrong

    I think the only reasonable arguments would be for 3 or 4. Personally, I would go for number 4. As an officer Crowley should develop methods of dealing with suspects that do not offend and don't allow situations to escalate too quickly. As an educated man Gates should have given a police officer more patience and not lowered himself with such a poor choice or words.

    We will not come together until someone takes the high road first. Ask yourself now... What would I do in that situation to change the world for the better?

    When a cop asks where are you going it may be a racist move. But, he/she won't learn to doubt his racist instinct until you demonstrate to him that he should. Tell him where you are going. Then, take a moment to talk to him. "how is your shift going?" "Are you looking for someone, maybe I saw them?" "Thanks for helping to make my neighborhood safe." You will both feel better when you get home. Good luck!

  5. Excellent advice!

  6. While I was a young man, and in college, one of my older brothers was a law enforcement officer. I was complaining to him one day about the treatment that I and my friends frequently got stopped and -- in my outraged opinion -- harassed by the police. Yes, I was stopped while driving while white, walking while white, and followed around stores while white.

    (It's strange that so many black people seem to think that when police see a white person they say to themselves, "Oh they're white, so I'll just leave my gun and cuffs in the car ... Say, I wonder if I should give them some free tickets to the Policemen's Ball!" Trust me, it ain't like that.)

    After listening to me rant for awhile, my brother looked at me -- me with my long hair, tattered jeans, old Army jacket, beat-up car -- and said, "You know, police don't look for criminals; they look for criminal types".

    This was an epiphany for me. And sure enough, once I (eventually) transformed my appearance by cutting my hair, dressing nicer, and driving a better car, the policemen's curiosity about my life dropped off significantly.

    What does this have to do with black people? I would urge you to be informed about the crime rate of blacks compared with, say, whites. It is my understanding that the average black man will commit about same amount of serious crime over his lifetime as nine white men will over theirs -- and remember, blacks have shorter life spans.

    So, yes, with police looking "criminal types", they -- just like Jesse Jackson when he hears footsteps and fears robbery -- will pay more attention to black people than to white ones. Though probably more attention to scraggly-looking white folks than to well-dressed black ones.

    You can call me a "racist" for saying what I just said, but you can't call me a liar for any of it. And I'd rather be called a racist than a liar.