Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Different Lens

A few summers ago, a student saw me wearing a sweatshirt with Coca-Cola written on it in Hebrew, and asked why I, being African-American, was wearing it if I wasn’t Jewish. After all, why expose myself to all the anti-Semitism that’s out there, if I don’t have to?

I chuckled and said to him, “Kid, anti-Semitism is the LAST thing I’m worried about.”

But as I walked away, I thought about how sad it was that this kid’s entire Jewish identity was probably based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the result of a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt by his parents to prepare him to deal with people out there in the “gentile world.” He was like the character Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall,” who saw anti-Semitism in every conversation, hearing the quickly spoken question “Did you eat?” as “Jew eat?

But to borrow a line often attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This comes to mind as I think of the events in what has come to be known as “The Case of the Professor and the Policeman;” the confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley.

Like my Jewish student who saw everything through the lens of possible anti-Semitism, Professor Gates views the events of last week through the lens of years of racial prejudice and profiling; perhaps where there was actually none of that involved. That is very likely why he “went off” on Crowley, because he felt that this same thing would not have happened had he been white.

But let’s consider another Harvard Gates: William Henry Gates III, better known to most people as Bill. Yes, that Bill Gates. What would Bill do if someone who didn’t recognize him saw him apparently trying to break into his house, and called the police to check it out? I’m betting he’d do what most people would do when the police arrived: thank them for checking it out, and cooperate immediately. I’m betting that despite being one of the richest people in the world, he would not go off on the police officers. Bill Gates would do what most people would do, and be thankful that the police came to check it out; after all, suppose it wasn’t just a simple case of the door being stuck, and it really was a burglar?

And when I say that Bill Gates would do what most people would do, this implies most white people. I don’t know a single white person who would immediately go off on the police for simply checking out something that understandably looked suspicious to someone else. Well, actually, I do know one, but he’s a little hot-headed and full of himself anyway, so we’ll ignore him.

Too many of us in the African-American community have an attitude about dealing with the police, as if “they’re” always out to get “us,” and that says that responding in a calm and polite manner means that you’re letting them trample all over your rights.

Many years ago I read a book by a New York State Trooper about how to get out of a speeding ticket. One of the first things it said was that police officers spontaneously divide people into two categories: citizens and jerks. Citizens understand that the officers are just trying to do their job, which is potentially dangerous, but ultimately is about protecting you, and the officer will generally cut a citizen a break. Jerks don’t understand this, give the officers a hard time, and make life harder for everyone – especially themselves in the end.

Citizens and jerks come in all colors and ethnicities. I wonder which one Professor Gates was being.
Adapted from a piece in the Syracuse Post-Standard on 8.2.09

1 comment:

  1. Several years ago my then 2 year old daughter called 911 and hung up, which generated a police visit to my third floor condo.

    I was pretty grungy, and unaware of the 911 call, when I greeted the police on the ground to let them in. He looked at me up and down, talked for a little bit, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable. Then I offered "Would you like to come upstairs to check on things?".

    He said yes, and after observing that my family was fine left after cautioning us on our daughter's phone usage.

    I was pretty happy with the whole thing --- it's exactly what I want the police to do. They got a hangup 911 call, and when the person answering the door doesn't look like he belongs they check it out. When everything does check out, they leave.