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Being Black on a Sunny Day

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The best news about the Professor Gates arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts and its aftermath is the very fact that it is news -- big news. And I believe that is positive. I think that too many White Americans thought that with Barack Obama in the White House, we could just skate through the next four or eight years without having to deal with this annoying and uncomfortable "race" issue, since Obama as president should quiet those kinds of unsettling issues. I warned sometime ago that I feared that too many black Americans thought that with Barack Obama in the White House, we could just skate through the next four or eight years without having to deal with a lot of "race" issues since his being president would somehow make things better and magically reduce the instances of racially motivated incidents in the country.

Nothing could be further from the truth. From country club swimming pool incidents in Pennsylvania, to "birthers" demanding to see the president's birth certificate because they "want their country back" quoting from one angry white female at a protest meeting, to cartoons about the First Lady with racial overtones, to -- how much time do we have here -- we have seen a nationwide outbreak of incidents that are or imply an extension of racially insensitive and hurtful motivation.

I have a theory about that which I will expound on further in another forum, but let's say it has to do with a society wherein if Americans really like an African-American, they like them more than anyone else -- Oprah, Tiger, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan. If they really don't like an African-American, they don't like them more intensely than anyone else. Right now, more and more Americans are liking Barack Obama less and less (thanks also to some prodding from talk show hosts and agenda driven commentators). Those who like Obama less are now more easily incited to transfer that dislike into racially motivated comments and smears. That's not everyone -- but it never is everyone.

But the Professor Gates incident is different because it has aspects to it that we have seen consistently for 100 years that have nothing to do with having a black President, as well as aspects that are unique to this particular case (internationally renowned scholar and intellectual from Harvard), and the incident has aspects to it that are specifically related to having a black President. You can't find too many other incidents like that, and I didn't have to spend much time searching, either.

Earlier, I said that the fact that this topic is now national news is really a good thing. Let me expand on that a bit further. At one point in a TV interview, CNN commentator Candy Crowley said that "the president has given this story more legs."

And she was right -- and I am glad he did. It doesn't matter to me what side you're on (there shouldn't be sides) and it doesn't matter how you feel -- not to me anyway. What matters to me is that you're talking about it -- that's what conversation is. The story needs not just legs, but arms, hands, and a talking head on it -- and that turned out to be the president himself. And that is good. I have been saying for the longest time that our country elected a black President before it had the conversation on race that we really needed, and because of that, there could be a real price to pay unless the president used a substantial portion of his term in office to address issues of race in a way that used his office to further the conversation and further the understanding we need.

You folks can argue about who was right and who was wrong -- not my issue. I just want you talking about it. Because you can't really talk about it in any extended conversation without at some point addressing perceptions, built up frustrations, attitudes among an entire community as well as a subset within that community (African-American males) about their relationship with law enforcement, and pre-conceived notions about crime and people's intentions. If we are talking about that, all over the country, whites and blacks -- then that's good for America. Enough of all of the criticism that the president should have stayed out of this or he went too far. The fact is, the only reason we are now having this discussion nationwide is precisely because the president jumped into it -- and I applaud him for doing so.

Now as to the incident itself, there is still information to be obtained and deciphered, and I hope that all those weighing in now with judgments about the behavior of the parties will reserve final judgment until all the facts are in. But there are a couple of issues that I have a problem with, and I will share those with you again for measured and calm reflection on your part.

1.I am concerned about the neighbor who originally called in the report to the police department. Since it is a neighbor, they should absolutely have regularly seen Professor Gates coming and going from the house and, particularly with the popularity and stature of this professor, they would have seen many African-American males coming and going from the house from time to time as well as whites and a multitude of visitors to that home. Furthermore, the neighbor might still be guilty of a "rush to judgment" even if it was any African-American male going to that home to call in to the Police department before being just a bit more certain. But in this case, we weren't dealing with some other African-American male -- it was Professor Gates himself. A neighbor who could see this man that close to see what he was doing should also have seen him enough times in the past to recognize that it was in fact Professor Gates himself. That's a problem I have which is separate from the facts of the confrontation and arrest itself.

2. Whatever comes out as to the facts of the case, it is my current impression that Professor Gates was totally not justified in referring to Officer Crowley as a "rogue cop." Rogue cops plant evidence in people's bathrooms and then arrest them for drug use. Rogue cops take bribes and deliberately set out to go after targeted troublemakers and abuse their rights. Rogue cops manufacture evidence. Officer Crowley's credentials and record on paper are impeccable, and I gladly note his work in helping to train other officers on how to deal with racial profiling. So let the record for my part stipulate that.

However, it is entirely possible that Officer Crowley reached a point where his adrenalin surge took over and he reacted in a way to what he judged to be provocation on the part of Professor Gates in a manner that maybe he would have been better served to "let go." He had established that there was no crime, that Professor Gates was in his own home, that he was in fact Professor Gates (and don't tell me that doesn't matter -- this is America -- of course it matters -- and people are right -- if it was Henry Kissinger there would have been no arrest. And finally, the fact that at some point the officer had established that Prof. Gates himself was not armed and was not a threat to cause harm to anyone in the area. So maybe when the officer was leaving the home to conclude the incident he should have continued on his way. That is an option that would have been far more likely if Professor Gates was a white professor with his stature and credentials and the officer at some point became aware of that.


3. I am concerned that white America understand that there is a real problem here that is steeped in racial profiling and stereotyping that has in fact victimized African-Americans (and Hispanics, as well) for far too long. Many African-Americans look at this situation and not only understand the reaction of Professor Gates, but they also are frustrated because they know that when this type of incident takes place all over the country, usually the African-American male involved is not a world renowned professor, is not universally acknowledged as an intellectual and scholar, and cannot count on public expressions of support from the governor of the state and the president of the United States in a national press conference. As a result, in those cases, the person has to fend for himself, and it becomes just the word of this black man against the integrity and consistency of the version of the story as presented by the police department. And in reality, even if the facts of the Gates case do not warrant a charge of racial profiling by Officer Crowley, the circumstances remind too many African-Americans all too painfully of how close this is to what happens to so many of them when there is racial profiling and there are no resources or circumstances like those surrounding Professor Gates to help them deal with the aftermath.

4. The fact is, at this point I am inclined to believe that Officer Crowley had good intentions but may have made a mistake in judgment in how he handled the situation. I can live with that because we are all as human beings subject to that, and it is also my impression that Professor Gates contributed to the officer's reaction by his own conduct. I'll let them and all of the commentators deal with that. If I can be satisfied that Crowley was not pre-disposed to racially profile Gates or allowed his own biases to affect how he dealt with the situation, then I can move on because I can separate this case from true racial profiling cases but still use the case as a launching pad for the conversation we need on these kinds of subjects. Fine. But I am not interested in hearing any more commentators point out that there was an African-American police officer on the scene as if that would automatically rule out profiling or somehow provide an automatic pass or validation for Officer Crowley. Oh, no. What most African-Americans know clearly is that having an African -American police officer on the scene means absolutely nothing and may sometimes even empower the white officers in charge into thinking they have a license to get away with more. I just wanted to state on the record at least one challenge to that argument that I have been hearing frequently in the discussion of the Gates case.

5. I also heard Professor Gates remark that "this incident has made me realize how vulnerable all black men are" in situations like this. I want to go on record as expressing my shock that a man of his intelligence, with such scholarly accomplishment, such worldly views with such a well traveled background and an eloquent ability to articulate the black experience, could be so naive as to reach his late 50's or early 60's and need to experience a personal incident like this to realize how vulnerable the status is of black men in America. He should think about that statement and ponder just how ridiculous the implication of that admission is for those hearing it coming from him.

In a Huffington Post editorial I wrote paying a final tribute to Michael Jackson, I said that President Obama needed to address the race issue while he still has such high personal approval ratings with so much political capital in the bank. With the slower than expected economic recovery for the working and middle classes in America while Wall Street is almost fully recovered and fully re-cashed chipping away at his approval ratings, and with health care chopping away at his political capital bank account, the president needs to step up the pace a bit if he is going to be effective in using his unique term in office to further the understanding of "race" in America and enable all of us to make progress as a country in this regard.

The comments he made at his press conference, while coming under so much criticism from so many, actually were a good start as the effect has been exactly what I have been calling for -- focusing on the conversation we need to be having. That's a win. But I also felt it was an opportunity missed when the day after the president's press conference, he went to a Town Hall meeting in Ohio facing a perfect forum to move the discussion further, and the president said nothing about the larger race issue: not the specifics of the Gates incident, but using that incident to launch the conversation we need. That's a loss.

The issue of race will never be a win-win. Very often it may be a win-loss. But what we cannot have is an approach where we skip from racial incident to racial incident, ramp up the conversation at each incident, and then a day later forget about it and forget about having the conversation. That's a loss-loss for all of us, and we can and must do better.

In his first comments on the incident, Professor Gates was quoted as saying his crime was "housing while black." That reminded me of Franklin Ajaye, one of the best and sharpest black comedians of the 70's who was perfect in the movie Car Wash. Ajaye was one of the most successful black comics ever in focusing specifically on using humor to expose the harm of racial profiling. From Ajaye, we got "driving while black", and "housing while black," and any other derivative formulations thereof -- maybe "writing while black."

For as Ajaye used to joke, things were so bad that he and a buddy were driving along the boulevard with the top down in a convertible, and they were stopped and arrested for being "black on a sunny day." Like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory and George Carlin before and after him, Ajaye and the others demonstrated that humor and comedy are sometimes the only forum where we as Americans have even been willing to listen to a conversation about the pain and hurt of racism and prejudice and try to learn from it and become better for having the discussion.

But it's no laughing matter. And with a president in the White House who has a keener sense of the ravages of prejudice and hate and misconceptions than perhaps any president we have ever had, we must not only take this opportunity, but also insist that he and we take this opportunity to initiate the conversation, and keep it going so that as each new incident comes up, we are already set up to deal with it rather than having to ramp up to devote every waking moment to that incident only to return to normal after the 24 hour news cycle. Let's try to do that -- even if it's just you and I.

Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio talk show host and commentator, and a national lecturer. E-mail: cjintel@juno.com