The Preeminent Dr. Henry Louis Gates?
TNTalk! America. © 2009 by Leon A. Walker
Throughout the past week I heard numerous comments from news commentators of all stripes and many black figures of prominence who have described Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. as one of the greatest and well know academic minds in America. The truth is that I knew very little about him before this incident. Please understand that I don’t move in such high brow circles. However, I do know that Harvard University, where Dr Gates is employed, is considered to be one of, if not the leading institution of higher learning in the nation. My impression of that institution given Dr. Gates behavior is that Harvard is obviously a place that you go to get really stupid!
Naturally, there will be those who disagree with my assessment of the “Cambridge Confrontation”. There are some truths that must be confronted as a result of this national news firestorm. First, there are a multitude of Americans who simply distrust, fear and dislike police officers. Why? What I term “Leon’s Theory of Police Relativity” goes something like this: “For every inappropriate police action, there is an equal and opposite negative public reaction”.
Though there is nothing to suggest that any of the officers at the scene of the “Cambridge Confrontation” have in any way contributed to the negative view of police officers that many Americans cling to. What we do know is that weekly, if not daily, we are fed images in the media of police officers employing excessive force and brutality on a wide range of victims. These victims are brutalized without regard to race, gender or age. In the past several weeks and months I have seen children handcuffed, elderly women shocked with tasers and a victim who was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, laid out on the ground, completely subdued and viciously kicked in the head. These are only a few examples. Sadly, for some, Police brutality is woven in the fabric of the American experience as clearly as their frequent heroics, which unfortunately, all too often get overshadowed.
I do not believe that the aforementioned examples of police brutality are representative of the behavior of the broad masses of police officers in America. I am convinced that police in this country do have a serious image problem within some quarters and among some ethnic groups. This image problem transcends generations. This is truth and has nothing to do with profiling. Neither does the incident in Cambridge. Having said that, it will take an equivalent amount of time and effort for the image of police officers to be reconstructed for many of our citizens. This includes, but spans a much broader chasm than mere racial profiling. As a result of this, the nation could certainly benefit from further reasonable discussions about race.
Dr. Gates is a middle aged man and an African American. Even so, I don’t understand him. Since I was very young I have always known and been taught that there are a very few, acceptable responses that a black child or man should do or speak when interacting with a police officer. Try to avoid the police whenever possible. Be cooperative and answer them respectfully without offering information. Blacks are instructed in this way for a reason, stemming from decades of experience in police encounters gone bad. We can make this a topic of another conversation about race, profiling or unfair treatment at another time.
Having discussed this incident with friends and family in recent days, it seems I learned these lessons well. Others I know have the very same impressions about the best way to deal with the cops. I’m not saying it is right! I am saying that unless you want to risk the provocation of an incident, this advice is widely considered the most prudent course. If you feel you have been insulted and victimized you do have administrative recourse.
Given that Dr. Gates is acquainted with the Mayor of Cambridge, the Governor of Massachusetts and the President of the United States, he had numerous options to throwing a tantrum. He could have written an eloquent letter of complaint and even released it to the media if he felt so passionately wronged or mistreated. Here is the dilemma.
Dr. Gates is supposed to be the preeminent expert on African American Studies from “Freakin Harvard”. Some would argue that nobody knows more about the African American experience that he does. Do you mean to tell me that he does not know better than to provoke a cop? I don’t know what neighborhood he grew up in, or perhaps he is just been getting so smart at Harvard that he’s lost every shred of his street smarts. If Gates is the preeminent mind on African Americans and he thinks it’s a good idea to talk trash or smack to a cop, then the only reason I am impressed with him at this point is because he escaped this incident without getting knocked in the head!
That police officer was not the preeminent mind on law enforcement in America! The officer was just a guy doing his job and he was not going to be prevented from doing that job. In my experience police officers are armed with an ideological weapon that says that they have the power and authority when dealing with citizens. They are not lawyers or even legal experts. Yet, Dr. Gates is apparently constrained by an ideological and social mindset that perhaps, even understandably, makes him uncomfortable with white police officers, unwilling to be directed or questioned by one in his own home. In this, Dr. Gates was absolutely correct!
Dr. Gates is also supposedly a brilliant, even articulate and cultured man. He did not have to be unruly or intentionally disrespectful. There was little need to be as personally vile and mean spirited as he was. He chose to behave in that fashion! Given his contacts and sphere of influence, why would he choose to behave in such an irrational manner? If you want to be held up as an example of the nation’s leading black expert on anything, irrational behavior is a poor choice. We used to say, “He showed his ass”, a risky choice at best. Clearly the whole tmatter became a bigger problem because not a man was willing or able to maintain the appropriate level of calm. That’s all that really happened here.
At the end of the day Dr. Gates did not deserve to get arrested, at least not according to the letter of the law. I believe that the disorderly conduct charge being dropped is evidence of this. The fact remains that he was needlessly rude to a cop who was simply trying to do his job even if that cop was doing it clumsily. I’m not saying he was given that I was not there. Due to Mr. Gates provocation, the situation degenerated to the point where the cop was emotionally bullied into taking action, doing the only thing he could think of to do under the circumstances. Dr. Gates precipitated this end by stooping to the lowest, even the most common, ignorant and hateful of tactics. He played the race card. I’m black, but the truth is truth and racism is racism. Dr. Gates made the choice. This choice was socially counter-productive. He chose to create or incite a racial incident by making an irresponsible charge against a white officer. This is as tragic as the reverse is today or as it was in the nations tragic racial past.
So it appears that Dr. Louis Henry Gates, “the nation’s preeminent academic mind on African American Studies” is not a very nice person. Dr. Gates has embarrassed himself, fracturing his credibility and public image. The sad thing about this incident is that nobody will come out of this looking as if they did the right thing: not the President, not the police officer and certainly not Dr. Gates. But it was Dr. Gates who manipulated and orchestrated this entire disaster. He will leave this incident looking like a racist angry black man with his pants sagging below his butt in the eyes of many who would have preferred to view him as the respected professional that he is. He should either get his medication checked or be man enough to apologize and enroll in anger management. Do they have anger management at Harvard?
There is one other factor that may be applicable to all black men of Dr. Gates generation and beyond, professionally immersed is areas dealing with African American history and social progress. My personal impression is that they “sometimes” display a tendency to be a bit hyper-sensitive in their characterizations of racism and are rather prone to disproportionate responses. Alas, each of us must endure our own perceptions.
As I said earlier, Dr. Gates did not deserve to get arrested, but as for the judgment and self control of the preeminent Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Junior… I am not at all impressed.