People trying to make sense of the Skip Gates arrest story should know there are two Cambridge’s in Massachusetts. There’s the one where typical “town and gown” conflicts are the rule. And then there’s the Cambridge divided by race and class and snap judgments are made before you can pull out your Harvard ID.
For that reason, I was always surprised when white friends of mine forever downplayed their Harvard connection, even to this day. I always was quick to raise it at all times.
It’s stereotype insurance. My friends’ half-hearted attempts at modesty are quaint. Me, I needed the protection.
Keeps you from having to do a lot of awkward explaining, i.e., “Hey I’m not here in a tuxedo as one of the waiters, I’m a damn dinner guest!” In other words, I belong here. It’s not always apparent to observers.
If people could only see Gates and realize he was the distinguished professor and head of the African American studies department, then we’d all be fine. But that’s not what you see in America when you see a person of color, or more specifically a black man, who looks as if he is trying to break into a home. You don’t think, it’s the black man’s home, of course. Because they couldn’t afford the home, unless it was a Section 8 rental, perhaps. You think, he must want the television set inside for drugs, or maybe he’s looking for sex. You know what they say about black men and sex. You think those thoughts and you call 911 as quickly as one woman did, a citizen on the watch, which brought police out to Gates’ door. When the Cambridge cops arrived, they didn’t do much better than the woman. They were suspicious of Gates even after he was inside his own home.
He just didn’t whip up that Harvard ID fast enough.
I visited Harvard in May, and actually was struck by how diverse it had become. There were Asians, Latinos, blacks, whites, it was a different kind of place from my days as an undergraduate. It seemed less colonial, more modern, almost as diverse as California. But Harvard can be its own oasis. Walk outside of Harvard Square toward Central Square and the Charles, and the diversity of Harvard clashes with the urban reality of Cambridge. It’s not necessarily crime-ridden. It’s just crowded, gritty and very urban. Full of life. Real people, real problems, often divided by race and class. That’s the world of the Cambridge cop. They see a lot of life.
Because of that, it’s a bit rough to say they acted as the president said “stupidly” the night they interacted with Gates. They may not have realized when they crossed back into the H-Zone.
But this is how a lot of Americans act when they see a person of color doing something that doesn’t make sense to them. It’s just downright puzzling to them. And then they react to the stereotypes they know. The familiar racist ones. Not the new ones of accomplishment in a time when a black man calls the White House home.
At the Wednesday night press conference, when President Obama talked about as if it were him breaking into his ‘home,” he joked, “I’d be shot.” There was laughter. But I didn’t laugh. There was more truth there than joke.
Could the Gates affair have been avoided? Maybe if Skip Gates was wearing his Harvard ID on his forehead. But probably not. We just don’t live in that America yet.
A NEW BAROMETER FOR RACISM IN AMERICA?
Skip Gates is a kind of hero of mine. The Afro-American Studies department was always good at Harvard. But Gates made it great and made ethnic studies both hip, intellectually rigorous and respectable. No basket-weaving here.
So what about Asian American studies at Harvard? A South Asian friend of mine who was an undergrad with me at Harvard, liked it so much he’s been a tenured professor there for over 20 years. I asked him why Harvard doesn’t have an Asian American studies program like the African American program, and he said matter-of-factly, “Because Asians don’t have a Skip Gates.”
He was serious. Gates is respected, and he has power. Asian Americans aren’t even close to that level in the academic world.So I’ve always wished we had an upfront scholar like a Gates advocating for Asian America. The Cambridge cops actually did Gates a new lease on his academic life. When Gates gets treated like he was by the local cops, they’ve just handed him his next best-seller. They’ve made him into a 21st Century Rosa Parks. Overall, the whole thing is humiliating, sure. But it’s also a sad reality check. If it can happen to Gates in a time when a Barack Obama lives in America’s house, what more to the poor, the powerless, the less distinguished? Nothing has changed.
For some reason, I just doubt you’d see the Cambridge cops give the same treatment to had someone like the late John Kenneth Galbraith, or former Harvard president Larry Summers lost their keys and had to jimmy a door.
It’s no sin to be a forgetful white person. But a black person with no key? Katie, bar the door. Skip Gates is trying to get into his own living room.