Columns » Hal Crowther

Lessons from the Henry Louis Gates case

Black, white and shades of gray

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Click for larger image • Henry Louis Gates Jr.: From Duke University to beers with President Obama - ILLUSTRATION BY TOM DAVIDSON
  • Illustration by Tom Davidson
  • Click for larger image • Henry Louis Gates Jr.: From Duke University to beers with President Obama

I can't believe I'm doing it again, like a moth to the flame, helpless, antennae shriveling, fragile wings igniting. Someone stop me. Ten times I promised myself I'd never write about race again, and I always break my promise. Because it's too important, I guess, and because so much that's written is so pathetic—frankly—and so repetitive.

When the subject is race, a candid, balanced opinion offends nearly everyone in this polarized, traumatized country. If you're white, as I appear to be, one side will jeer you as a clueless honky, the other as a spineless apostle of white guilt. Even writing a Klan-baiting essay with the mischievous title "Crossbreed for Christ" didn't get me a free pass from the PC left. If you're not white, your choices are even narrower: Steer left and you're Huey Newton, steer right and you're Stepin Fetchit.

A key thing is to stop reading letters to the editor, as I did many years ago. Come what may, the notorious arrest of Skip Gates is a story I can't bear to ignore. I agreed with President Barack Obama that it represented "a teachable moment," and a rare one that didn't come attached to some tragedy or atrocity. And it comes to me in the person of an unusual character who is not unfamiliar to me. Unlike many of the individuals who've weighed in on this confrontation, from Stanley Fish to Barack Obama, I am not a personal friend of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (evidently his friends in high places are legion) who feels comfortable calling him "Skip." But we met and talked on several occasions during his brief tenure at Duke University in the 1990s, when he and my wife occupied neighboring offices in the English department.

They got along famously. He charmed her by putting up an "Appal-American Studies" sign on her door—she writes Appalachian fiction—to match the "African-American" sign on his. Loyal to a fault, she took his part entirely when she read about the incident in Cambridge. We think of ourselves as a pro-Gates family. It's unfair to use the word "prickly" to describe him, considering his unprecedented position as a black academic superstar. Certainly some people resent and envy Skip Gates. In another context, I observed that Gates is "sensitive to minute shifts in the social temperature, in any room that would once have been described as 'mixed.'" More wary than prickly, he is, and probably something of a litmus test for racists. He isn't one to duck his head and say "Aw, I've just been lucky, man." (He hasn't been, of course. He's smart as hell and works like the devil.) He doesn't defer to certain white dons who may expect it. I don't defer much myself, though perhaps I deferred to Gates, substantially younger than I am, because even then he wore a heavy mantle of academic renown.

But now we learn from Stanley Fish, commenting on this arrest, that there was active and concerted faculty resistance to Gates' appointment. "No evidence would have convinced some of my colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud," wrote Fish, who as English chairman hired him to teach at Duke. I didn't realize the opposition was so overt. That puts some of Gates' uneasy collegial moments in a different light, it seems to me, and explains his designation of Duke as "the plantation." This all happened 20 years ago; 20 years earlier, he would have been just about the only black face on campus. Fish also revealed the single thing I find most endearing about Gates—that when he taught at Duke in 1990, he rooted for UNLV against the Blue Devils in the national basketball championship game.

This is not your everyday, go-along-to-get-along African-American. I've read many accounts, and for me the worst thing Gates said to Sgt. Crowley was "You have no idea who you're messing with." In any situation, "Do you know who I am?" behavior is an embarrassing form of celebrity self-importance. (I was in a cab in New York once, listening to the driver's radio, and the news flash was an altercation involving the celebrity sycophant Joan Rivers, stuck in a slow rental-car line, who screamed "Do you know who I am?" and ultimately threw a ballpoint pen at a bewildered Hertz agent. "I'd tell the bitch where she could put her ballpoint pen," said the Lebanese cabbie.)

Yet it wasn't who Gates is, but what he is that added up to a very bad day for Sgt. Crowley. Everyone agrees that being arrested on your own front porch is a blameless black American's worst nightmare. But what about a beat cop's worst nightmare, responding to a standard housebreaking 911 and ending up in a facedown with this Toussaint L'Ouverture of the lecture hall, the single black man in all of Greater Boston least likely to show patience with what was, after all, an error and an insult? Not to mention that he's a personal friend of the president of the United States.

If you've read his biography (Colored People), as I have, you know that all his life Skip Gates has responded like a wolverine—a small, bespectacled, cane-carrying but nonetheless impassioned wolverine—to every attempt to treat him like a second-class American.

Only the scholar and the cop know exactly what passed between them. A neighbor's photograph captured Gates in what appears to be full battle cry—rage—but by then he was already handcuffed. I can't condemn Gates for losing his temper. I might have—I have, with similar results—and racial profiling wasn't part of my problem. The most obvious yet most urgent message from this teachable moment was that racial profiling—stereotyping black people as menials or criminals—is a raw nerve and an unhealed wound that trumps some of America's best efforts to improve racial relations.

President Obama, Colin Powell, Attorney General Eric Holder and every person of color who reacted to Gates' arrest cited bitter experiences of his own. Obama, in his memoir The Audacity of Hope, recalls security guards trailing him through department stores and white people flipping him their car keys while he stood waiting for valet parking. The eminent black historian John Hope Franklin, Gates' former Duke colleague who died this spring at age 94, never forgot his humiliation, at an exclusive club where he was a member, when a moronic white woman handed him her coat to check. Franklin, who looked and carried himself like a senator, in beautifully tailored suits, was 80 years old at the time. (Franklin, a sly raconteur, also loved to tell the story of the luncheon where Stanley Fish welcomed Skip Gates to Duke. Fish invited only black faculty and then excused himself, leaving Gates to contemplate Dixie at a fully segregated event.)

Profiling appears to be a universal experience in nonwhite America. The clowns who toss coats and car keys are no Klansmen, of course, just grotesque boors who have no idea of the damage done when one brain-dead gesture robs another person of his dignity. It's comforting to think that some of them have been subjected to physical violence, but this is a class of well-heeled fools who may be immune to most teachable moments. The knee-jerk reaction from the left, and from the civil rights establishment, was to portray Sgt. Crowley as an equally insensitive redneck, a typical Boston Irishman of the old school who uses his badge to keep the coloreds in their place. Only the stereotype didn't stick. It turned out that Crowley was the officer in charge of teaching recruits how to avoid racial profiling, a course he'd conducted for five years at the police academy in Lowell. He was handpicked for that job by a former police commissioner, an African-American. But the most telling item in Crowley's résumé is that he was the officer who tried to save Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when the black Celtics' basketball star collapsed and died on the practice court in 1993.

Far from a racist bully, Crowley emerged as a model of the good color-blind white cop, which wrapped the whole saga in a certain mystery, and made it one of those dramas with race at its center that generates some fascinating speculation. These were not bad people, and not stereotypes. Not a rogue cop with race issues on the one hand, not a humorless white-hating black radical on the other. But neither one is inclined to apologize. The standoff reminded me of the novel House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III, the story of two proud, stubborn people from different cultures, each worthy of respect, who engage in a dispute that eventually destroys both of them and everyone around them. House, which was made into a decent movie, was a Greek tragedy with no villains.

In this case, no tragedy occurred, thank God. The fate of most of America's teachable moments is that our media machinery turns them into comedy, usually into farce. The Crowley/ Gates pas de deux was in no way trivial, but it was very subtle, a story meant to be dissected by psychologists, sociologists, serious writers. But instead of scholars or artists, the story of these antagonists fell into the hands of blithering idiots. The state of the media in this country is beyond desperate. The state of the electronic media is terminal; unfortunately, Walter Cronkite lived long enough to see just how his world would end. Where journalists once roamed, stories worthy of Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro are consigned to professional comedians—that's on the high side—and on the low side to pudgy, reactionary ex-disc jockeys in orange shirts. These media were enervated and hung over from one of their most pathetic orgies, a month of grisly autopsies on what was left of Michael Jackson. A mad, mutilated, child-molesting junkie, a vampire who devoured himself, was eulogized by people who knew better as if he was the rightful heir to Martin Luther King. To witness this spectacle, Jesse Jackson and all, was to experience the absurd in its purest form.

When they write America's obituary, I hope someone will note that in the summer of 2009, a statue of Michael Jackson moonwalking, carved from a huge block of butter, rested next to the traditional butter cow in a 40-degree cooler at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

President Barack Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley raise a toast in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30. - OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA. © GAMMA/ZUMA PRESS
  • Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. © Gamma/ZUMA Press
  • President Barack Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley raise a toast in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30.

After this, what? The summer's important story was health care legislation, but health care isn't sexy, as one cable news anchor was candid enough to concede. With fangs still dripping from the Jackson blood-feast, the cable-news ghouls fell on Gates/ Crowley like it was a delicious second helping of racial politics, and best of all, of confusion: Jackson was a black man who didn't want to be black, or a man, or even a human being from what I could see. After a full 10 days of saturation coverage and escalating rhetoric, four out of five Americans knew that President Obama said the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates (amazing, considering that only one American in three can name the three branches of government). Down seven points in his approval ratings and bewildered by the carnivorous media, Obama back-pedaled and tried to cut his losses by inviting Gates and Crowley to meet for a beer on the White House lawn. The event was billed as "the beer summit" by the press, and even The New York Times reported the participants' choice of beers. Pundits couldn't resist dubbing the whole affair "Gatesgate."

It was a circus, and there was a clown. Glenn Beck, perhaps the dumbest and most ridiculous of all the right-wing ex-DJs who ape journalists on talk radio and Fox News, called the president a racist with "a deep-seated hatred for white people." (Like Obama's mother and grandmother, perhaps?) Beck earns $10 million a year for broadcasting his profound ignorance coast-to-coast. This decay of the media into a blind scramble for ears and eyeballs creates some spectacular mismatches. IQs aside, Gates and Obama hold at least 15 years of blue-chip higher education over Beck, a high school graduate and recovering alcoholic. And since they're each precisely 50 percent white (Gates submitted a DNA sample for a genealogy project), together they can match his Caucasian DNA—and no doubt theirs is of dramatically higher quality.

But you don't have to be as stupid as Beck to fall into the trap of calling nonwhites racists, as if there's a level playing field for interracial affection. Among Jews, there's a tendency to distrust Germans, and Armenians are slow to warm up to Turks. I wonder why? Huffy white reactionaries who call black people "racist" are as disingenuous as the overstuffed rich who scream "class war" if anyone objects to their disgusting lion's share of America's wealth.

Within legal limits, African-Americans' resentment and distrust are perfectly natural. What bothers me is that most Americans on both sides of the racial divide still fall into the old plantation race trap, Dixie's all-or-nothing rule, the slave-state notion that pure "white blood" is the desirable norm and any blood that dilutes it is tainted, like a poison in the bloodstream. Thomas Jefferson, much to his discredit and very ironically in the light of his own miscegenous adventures, calculated that it took three generations to "clear the blood" of African impurities.

In modern, scientific terms, the old racial definitions are offensive and preposterous. Why is Barack Obama a black man, not a white man, when in fact he's both and neither? Raised in a white family with white, middle-class expectations, how would he have known he wasn't "white" if he didn't, all his life, have creatures like Beck to remind him? African-Americans, most of mixed race and many more than half white, look to Africa as Skip Gates has because the door to their other identity, their European heritage, has always been closed. No one gives a damn whether an Irish-Italian American calls himself Sean or Giovanni, but would you laugh at Gates and Colin Powell, both descended from Scots and Irishmen, if they chose to wear tartan kilts?

White racists base their entire worldview on the all-or-nothing rule, as archaic as it is irrational. But many nonwhites and liberal idealists also accept it, implicitly, when they endorse something like the quixotic reparations movement. This is the noble notion that the U.S government should compensate all African-Americans for the unpaid slave labor extracted from their ancestors. Fair enough? But since most African-Americans are descended from both slaves and slaveowners, the cynic would say to these applicants, "Compensate yourself, then, and there's a wash." As a taxpayer's burden, reparation grates at both ends. Should I, an American descended from no one who ever owned a slave (from late 19th-century immigrants only), pay reparations to Barack Obama, descended from no one who was ever enslaved, or Colin Powell (Scottish-Jamaican), descended from no one who was ever enslaved in the USA? To repudiate the slaver's racial distinctions is to give up the logic of these claims.

It's logical to put all this sorry nonsense behind us and to go on race-mixing until the last pure white man in America is as conspicuous as an albino. But the logical is rarely the actual, or even the feasible. Idealists founder and often perish in the lonely gap between the best we can realistically wish for and the best we can imagine. We're all in this together, burdened and diminished by our rotten history. I agree with the first wave of Skip Gates' defenders, some of them fairly militant, that it's ridiculous to claim we live in a postracial America just because there's a "black" man in the White House. The fierce backlash proved that America's woods are full of racists, even troglodytes who believe that blacks' achievements have been limited by inferior genes instead of centuries of oppression and monochromatic opportunity. (Overachieve like a Gates or Obama, and suddenly they notice you're half white.)

Racists still abound, the ones who know what they are and the ones who don't. A Northern reader responding to Stanley Fish noted that North Carolina was still represented by Jesse Helms 20 years ago, when Gates lived here. I've got news for him: It was just six years ago that Helms left the U.S. Senate.

But those ignorant people, in the woods and on the airwaves, are fewer now and older. They're louder and meaner, too, because they look at Obama and sense that their world is ending. The right, where the race trolls dwell, is reduced to strange rumors and desperate measures. Charles Blow, writing in The Times, noted that 60 percent of Republicans in a recent poll doubt that Obama was born in the United States, a doubt that's absurd. In a similar poll, 60 percent of them doubted that evolution ever touched the human race, a doubt that's cretinous. Blow, an African-American, had the cheek to suggest that the GOP may not be attracting the best and the brightest. "This is no party of Einsteins," he concluded.

At the other extreme, I'm weary of militants who insist as a point of political correctness that nothing has changed in racist America. Skip Gates dressed down a white police officer and ended up drinking beer at the White House, instead of in the hospital, or worse. He committed his indiscretion in a city with a black lesbian mayor, in a state with a black governor, in a nation with a black president. In fact, you can now drive from Provincetown all the way across Massachusetts and New York to the Ohio state line at Lake Erie, a distance of roughly 600 miles, without ever leaving territory where a black governor is in charge. What would W.E.B. Dubois or Paul Robeson have made of that?

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