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Keith Boykin Headshot

White Men Can't Judge

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The most disturbing aspect of the news coverage about Henry Louis Gates' arrest has been the running commentary by white men about appropriate decorum for black men.

Of course, it was no surprise that blowhards like Rush Limbaugh would jump in to defend the white police officer and impugn Professor Gates. Nor that the conservative radio talk show host would turn his attack to President Obama after the president labeled the Cambridge Police Department behavior "stupid."

Limbaugh's an easy case. More troubling is the commentary from Sergeant James Crowley himself, an "expert" on racial profiling who still doesn't understand why a black man would be upset to be accused of breaking into his own house.

"From the time he opened the door it seemed that [Gates] was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place," Sergeant Crowley told Boston sports radio station WEEI this week. "Not just what he said, but the tone in which he said it, just seemed very peculiar -- even more so now that I know how educated he is."

So educated people can't get upset?

I'm a Harvard graduate, and I reacted angrily just a few days ago when a New York City police officer stopped me Sunday inside a Manhattan subway station and accused me of jumping the turnstiles, which I clearly had not done. I made a scene, much like Professor Gates probably did, because I felt I was being unfairly singled out.

After I proved that I had entered the station legally, an unknown black woman standing nearby came to my defense. "Do you know who he is? He worked in the White House," she said, much to my surprise.

In fact, it's the "educated" and "successful" black men who are most likely to become indignant in racial profiling situations. Many younger black men I know suffer through random police stops on a regular basis and have grown accustomed to the procedure. But older, middle-class and upper-income blacks are often shocked when the police come for them, too. Yet in the eyes of the police, a black Harvard professor is just another potential suspect.

The officer in the Gates case wrote in his police report that the professor exhibited "loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place." Actually, the professor was in a private place until the officer -- who admitted in the report that Gates "appeared to be a resident" -- asked him to step outside. But even in public, why can't a black man be loud when he's angry about real or perceived police harassment?

And why wouldn't an expert in racial profiling understand the long history of police abuse of African American men and consider that in evaluating Gates' response to the situation? After everything black men have been through in this country, from slavery to segregation to racial denialism, it's a wonder that well-educated black men like Gates and Obama are usually so controlled.

That's what CNN anchor Lou Dobbs seemed to miss Thursday night on his show when he asked CNN contributor Roland Martin to calm down in responding to the ridiculous charges about Barack Obama's citizenship. "You're yelling and you're getting awful excited about something that doesn't require this level of remarks," Dobbs scolded Martin.

Dobbs had just finished expressing his doubts about Professor Gates in a segment with CNN's Soledad O'Brien when he expressed sympathy with those who questioned the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate. So let me get this straight. We're supposed to believe a lone white police officer in Massachusetts but not believe the entire state of Hawaii about Obama's birth?

Yes, in our society, white men are considered believable and those pesky people of color (Hawaiians or African Americans) are not. That's why all the evening news anchors on every news network (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC) are white, and nearly all of those are men. And that's why a 42-year-old cop is more credible than a distinguished 58-year-old Harvard professor.

No matter how much progress we've made, black men still don't have the right to get upset and indignant, even in their own homes. Crotchety old white guys like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs can foam at the mouth on radio and television all day about immigrants and blacks, but a black male public figure can't complain too loudly. That would be ungrateful and undignified.

And it doesn't matter what your status if you're a black man. A black TV personality can't get upset with a white guy on CNN. A black White House veteran can't get upset with the NYPD on the subway. A black Harvard professor can't get upset with the Cambridge Police in his house. And apparently a black president can't get upset in his house either.

She won't say it, but Judge Sonia Sotomayor was right when she spoke about a wise Latina judge often reaching a better decision than a wise white man. Many white men still can't judge these situations fairly because they don't understand what it means to be black in America.

Whether you're a pundit, a professor or the president, if you're a black man you better know your place.