Henry Louis Gates and I are very different people. He is a Harvard Professor. The closest I got to the Ivy League was a weekend visit to Yale. He is a successful author. I am a blogger whose aspirations may outstrip his abilities. He is world renowned. I am, well, not. He is, most definitely, far more knowledgeable about a great many things than I am. Of that I’m sure.
However, we have two things in common. We are both black men. As such, though he’s a college professor and I’m long out of college, we are both perpetually enrolled in the same course.
It’s called Black Man – 101.
This gets to right to the heart of my point. As an African-American male, I have always been taught to show respect to the police, even when or if I feel that the officer is wrong. As a survival technique, I am teaching this to my son and I convey this to my students and all of the other young people that I engage in my lectures. My parents and other elders have always taught me "an argument with a cop is an argument you will always lose … if you don’t get along with the police, you will probably go along with the police and that’s a trip you do not want to take. Even when you’re right, if you fail to comply, you’re wrong. You’re objective during an encounter with the police is to leave that encounter in the same manner in which you entered it, in one piece. You can challenge the officer later in court. That’s ‘Black Man – 101.’"
Taking it is a prerequisite for survival. There are no grades. It’s strictly "Pass or Fail." There is no mid-term exam, no final exam, and no graduation ceremony at the end. There is a ceremony at the end, but you won’t see it. There is no diploma, either. But there is a certificate, and everyone know will know you’ve graduated if under "Cause of Death" it reads "natural causes" or something else that is not caused by any officer of the law.
There is no class picture. Just pictures of those who didn’t make it, as a reminder that you can be tested at any moment. And, yes, the test is often rigged.
I fit the description then, and I’ve fit the description since. The next time I can remember is when I was in college. I was walking back from class, on my way to the dining hall for dinner, dressed like most of my friends dressed on our predominantly white campus, in torn jeans and a t-shirt. I was halfway across the parking lot of one of residence halls when it happened.
I’d seen the police car when I was waiting to cross the street. I didn’t give it much thought, because I wasn’t doing anything. But the officers had paid a lot more attention to me than I had to them. They turned into the parking lot, and stopped right in front of me as I walked across.
One of the officers got out of the car and began asking me questions. Was I a student? Where was I going? Where was I coming from? Could I show him my student I.D.? I did, and he told me that there had been some cars broken into in that lot, and some break-ins at the nearby dorms, and that I fit the description of someone seen in the area around the time of the earlier crimes. And then more questions. Did I know anything about the robberies? Did I know who might be responsible? Did I walk through that lot every day? (Not after that day, I didn’t.)
Eventually, the officer finished his questions and let me walk away. They sat parked in the car as I went on. Keeping an eye on me, I’m sure. I thought about how differently that situation might have ended, because I knew even then the truth in what Anthony Williams said: “You never know what to expect when you get pulled over by the police, and that’s how it is when you’re black.”
This was before the Amadou Diallo shooting, before Malice Green, and before Abner Louima. But being from the south, I heard stories, and I knew that I couldn’t completely trust the police, even if I’d done nothing wrong; not so much because of the police a whole, but because I didn’t know who — what kind of person — was behind the uniform, and what they might project upon me as a black man. I’d been trained without even knowing it on how to respond to the police; saying “Yes, officer,” and “No, officer,” and offering only the information that was requested, and then only if they had a right to ask for it and I didn’t have a right refuse. Ask the questions I had a right to ask, but never show anger or disrespect, even if they do.
My first teacher in Black Man 101 was my father, and I remember one lesson in particular.
I was in college at the time. I’d been home for a weekend visit, and was heading back to school — at the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA. As I made several trips back and forth, loading up the car, my dad sat on the couch, watching television. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught my dad looking at me with what appeared to be concern, as though he was trying to decide whether to say something to me about it.
Finally, I finished loading the car, and said my goodbyes. But my dad stopped me before I could make it out the door and finally spoke his concern.
“Son,” he asked, “is that what you’re wearing to drive back to Athens?”
I was wearing my basic school “uniform” at that time: a ripped pair of old, faded jeans, and a old t-shirt.
“Um, yeah,” I said.
My dad then breathed a sigh that seemed a mix of resignation, exasperation, and trepidation over what he was about to tell me — what he had to tell me, really.
“Son,” he said, “You are going to be driving through a lot of southern counties. Now, I’m not saying you’re going to do anything wrong. But you are a young black man, and if you get pulled over by one of these southern sheriffs or policemen, they are going to take one look at you and get the wrong idea. They’re not going to treat you like they would a white boy dressed like that.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to argue with him, and say that stuff like that may have happened when he was my age, but it certainly didn’t happen anymore. Instead, I unpacked some clothes, and changed into a pair of khakis and a buttoned-down oxford, which met with dad’s approval.
I was still thinking about my dad’s words when I got back to UGA. After unloading the car and carrying everything up to my room, I turned on the television. At some point, the news came on and I saw this.
It was a lesson that I would remember years later, when I was pulled over late one night while driving a fraternity brother home. There we were, two young black men, driving through Capitol Hill in a wrecked car (I’d had an accident just a few days earlier). A taillight was no longer working, and a police officer pulled us over. There had been some car thefts in the area, and we looked suspicious enough to her to warrant being checked out. That one police car was soon joined by two or three more. And then a police van showed up.
In my rear view mirror, I saw the officer who stopped us get back out of her car, at the same time that I saw yet another police car pull up. At this point, I started to get nervous — after all there we were, two black males, driving through D.C. at 4 a.m., in a banged up car, with the police units and six police officers now at the scene. Depending on any number of factors, including what we said or did, it might not matter if we’d done anything wrong.
“Is this your vehicle?” the officer asked me when she arrived back at my window. “We’ve had some car thefts reported in this area.”
I assured her that it was my car, and she stepped away for a moment to confer with one of the other officers now milling about the scene. At that moment, a police van showed up, and stopped alongside the passenger side of the car. Neal, who hadn’t said a word up to this point, looked at the van, looked at me and just said “What the…”
I finished his sentence silently, in my mind.
The officer, at this point, was back at my window. “Sir,” she asked me, “do you have the title to the vehicle.”
How many people keep the title to their car in the car itself? I didn’t know, but I knew that I did have the title in the car. I knew just where it was. It was in my briefcase, which was in the trunk of the car. I knew that in order to retrieve the title, I’d have to get out of the car — and with at least eight officers now pretty much surrounding us — walk over to the back of the car, open the trunk, open the briefcase, and retrieve the title.
What if, I thought, just one of these officers thought I was reaching for a gun at any point in that series of steps? That I had no gun — had never even owned one, in fact — was and would have been meaningless in that moment. It wouldn’t have mattered.
…I told the officer that I had the title, and that it was in my briefcase, in the trunk of the car. I told her I’d have to get out of the car, open the trunk, and open the briefcase to get the title out and show it to her. She gave me the go ahead, and I walked around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, opened the briefcase, and got the title. I don’t remember if the officer followed me, and I didn’t look to see if any of the officers had their hands on their weapons. I couldn’t.
I showed the officer the title. She looked it over, handed it back to me, and told me to get back in the car. The van drove away, and one of other police cars drove away. Finally, the officer came back to my window.
“I’m giving you a warning,” she said. “You take him home, get yourself home, and then I don’t want to see you driving this car again in this condition.”
I assured her that she wouldn’t.
“Alright,” she said. “Have a good one.”
I rolled up my window, and started the engine. To this day, I am eternally grateful that Neal waited until the windows were rolled up and we were driving away from the police officers to exclaim — well out of their earshot — “Have a good one? F___ you!
Perhaps it was the circumstances — the lateness of the hour, the presence of at least six police officers, and a police van, and eerie silence of the abandoned streets — focused my mind. There was no one around. If something happened, would anyone see? (Let alone get it on video?) It was very late, and most people would probably be in bed. If something happened, would anyone hear?
At that moment, my Black Man 101 training came back to me. I modulated my voice. I moved when the officers asked me to, and made no sudden movements when I did. I explained what I needed to do in order to comply with their requests before I made a move. Beyond that, I said little except for "Yes, officer," "No, officer," "I understand, officer."
But, that was the middle of the night. I wasn’t trying to get into my own house in the middle of the day.
Apparently, a white woman passed by, saw two black men with backpacks outside a nice home, assumed they were burglars, even though one of the men in question is almost 60 years old and immediately called the police. She was still there, with cell phone in hand, when the Cambridge police arrived on the scene.
The incident occured in the middle of the day, and when the police showed up, they realized Gates was the owner of the home. He was, in fact, not arrested on suspicion of burglary, but for disturbing the peace and acting belligerent after the officers demanded he come back outside to show identification.
Both sides remember the details differently. While the officer says Gates at first refused to produce identification, Gates said he immediately showed the officer two forms of identification. On Tuesday, due no doubt to all the racism outrage, the Cambridge police dropped charges against Gates, which leads to questions about who was in the wrong.
After Gates produced ID, the Cambridge police called the Harvard police, who then called a Harvard maintenance worker to vouch for Gates’ identity. And then, of course, there was that white woman passerby still lingering around, clutching her cell phone.
According to the police report, the police were angered after Gates called them racists in front of the growing crowd of people nearby. Gates, in their opinion, committed the cardinal sin. He called them out on the spot for racial profiling and still the officer remains confused, puzzled and bewildered that Gates was upset.
Of course, there was a point at which both Gates and the officer could have backed down. Instead of turning it into an public "Alpha Male" pissing match. Once Gates proved that he was in his own home, the officer could have ignored his ranting as that of a cranky old man, and just gotten into his car and walked away.
Once Gates proved his identity, and that he was in his own home, he could have simply walked the office to the door, thanked him for making sure he and his home were safe (and here Gates would certainly have been able to manage enough irony in his tone to get his point across), and close the door behind him. He could have remembered that first lesson from Black Man – 101, "an argument with a cop is an argument you will always lose," and not gone all "yo mama" on the officer. (In the second week of Black Man – 101, we learn that you don’t go "yo momma" unless you plan to fight and know you can win.)
But I’m also not Henry Louis Gates, who had just flown back from China to find his front door jammed — which would annoy anyone.
Add to that being greeted by police because a passerby saw you trying to get into your house, assumed there was a robbery in progress, and then hung around to watch the outcome.
Add to that the shock of finding out that, utterly without warning and wholly unprepared, you’ve been busted back to "Remedial Black Man." There can be many reasons for this, but the two most common ones are being so busy living your life that you forget you are still enrolled in Black Man 101 and that class is in session, and thinking that you’ve actually graduated.
I don’t know which of the two is the reason for Prof. Gates getting busted back to Remedial Black Man. I do know that our time in that class is usually short. A brief quiz serves as our ticket back to the ongoing Black Man 101 class. It consists of just a few questions based upon the circumstances under which we were sent back to the remedial class.
They are the questions that we ask ourselves in anger, exasperation, and shock in the moment we find out we’re headed back to the remedial class. In Prof. Gates’ case, I imagine they were the questions he asked himself internally when he realized the police were at his door and why.
Question: My God. I’m a Harvard Professor now. Is there nothing I can do to get away from this?
Question: Is there nowhere I am safe from this?
Question: Am I to be subject to this even in my own house?
Simple questions. Simple answers, already known. The remedial class is brief because it serves only to remind us of what we already know.
In 2009, in Cambridge and in most other towns in America, even with his Ph.D., Henry Louis Gates Jr. is still an African-American male in America. The lesson to be learned from this: If you don’t get along with the police, you will probably go along with the police and that’s a trip you do not want to take. Even when you’re right, if you fail to comply, you’re wrong. Is this fair? No, but it’s real!
Welcome back to Black Man 101.
Excellent point made in this article about the cop’s refusal to apologize: That "Black Man – 101" is still a required course suggests that there’s a problem.
Mr. Vivian, 47, said that he had been unfairly stopped by the police in the past, but that he lived by “an unwritten code” for dealing with these incidents. And Dr. Gates certainly did not obey the code, he said.
Quiet politeness is Rule No. 1 in surviving an incident of racial profiling, he said. So is the frequent use of the word “sir.”
“People used to say, ‘Look, there’s a Colin Powell. There’s an Oprah Winfrey.’ Now they say, ‘There’s a black president.’ I say, I’m happy to see the exceptions. There’s always an exception. But I’m interested in how society treats the average person.”
That there is a well-known code of behavior familiar to most minorities who are stopped by the police, Mr. Vivian said, is testament enough of a problem.
“It clearly says that we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Ultimately, the rule amounts to obedience to absolute authority — even when that authority is wrong. It amounts to abnegation of one’s human right to be angry when one’s dignity is assaulted or denied.
I’ve noticed something. No one seems to seems to question whether the angry white men that swept Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority into power in 1994 were justified in their anger. It’s assumed that whatever they’re angry about they have a right to be angry about.
But not so for the so called “angry black women.” Their anger is somehow less “real” and less justified. Perhaps that’s because being angry is a privilege in this culture. Anger, if you are a minority, is dangerous. If you are a woman, or a person of color, gay, etc., your movements must be calm, your voice must be modulated, and your anger must ever show.
Joy is permitted. You may sing, dance, and celebrate in your joy. It is a performance, sometimes a command performance, demanded of you even in the midst of despair. Suffering is permitted. It, too, is familiar and non-threatening. It can even be reaffirming to those looking upon it; reaffirming their power and privilege. Sadness is permitted. You are allowed to mourn, and to moan, keen, and cry in your mourning. Fear is permitted. Your fear — wide-eyed screaming or stunned silence — is familiar, and recognizable.
You are allowed all of the above, especially in response to another’s more “real” anger, but not your own anger. Anger implies entitlement — to material goods, to power and privilege, or a certain kind of treatment. Anger implies a right to expect something, and is a justifiable response to not receiving one’s due. And you aren’t due that which you’d have a right to be angry about having been denied.
Needless to say, the above applies to the "angry black man" too.