By Dr. Marybeth Gasman
By now, most enlightened people have heard about the incident involving Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police. As a recap, the Cambridge police arrested the eminent scholar in front of his home. Just having returned from filming a PBS special in China, Gates, along with his Black taxi driver, were trying to loosen the lock on the front door of his home. A concerned woman called the police noting that “two black men” were forcing their way into a house in her neighborhood. Although Gates was already in the house making a phone call to the real estate company that manages his home, the police arrested him.
Gates’ arrest made me wonder what would have happened in this situation if he had been White. It seems to me that whenever I am questioned by the police, they give me the benefit of the doubt. Why? (of course I know why) Let me offer a recent example in which I thought to myself — ‘Hmmm what would have happened had I been African American?’
A few months ago, I was driving a friend home who lives in an area of Philadelphia that is considered “dangerous.” The area is typically heavy with police officers as many people cruise the streets looking for drugs at night. I dropped off my friend and started to drive home. As I am not great with directions and it was dark, I got a bit disoriented and accidentally made an illegal right hand turn. Within minutes the police were behind me, pulling me over. They began asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood (most likely assuming that I was trying to purchase drugs) and where I was going. I responded, “I just dropped off a friend after having dinner. I’m trying to get home.” Sensing that the officers didn’t quite believe me , I said, “I’m a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I just need to get to West Philadelphia where I live.” The officers let me go immediately and, in fact, they helped guide me back to the main road that would take me home. They also apologized for suspecting me of anything but the traffic violation.
I was pretty shaken after this incident as any interaction with the police makes my pulse quicken. As I drove home, I wondered what would have happened had I been African American. Would my “I’m a Penn professor” plea have worked? Unfortunately, based on the experiences of so many of my African American friends who have been stopped by the police for merely walking/driving/sitting while Black, I know what would have happened. I now have a definitive answer in Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with the Cambridge police.
Gates was in his doorway. I was in my car, far from my home. I was given a pass immediately by the police. I can’t help but think my “Whiteness” was a benefit. Unfortunately, most White Americans do not realize that they walk around with the immense privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Post-racial America? Where is this America?
Let’s hope that people realize that racism is alive and well in America — that they own up to it, take ownership of it. Better yet, let’s work as hard as possible to counter and confront these racist incidents, to educate those around us, and to fulfill the vision of our current president.
I think President Obama said it best during his inaugural address: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).