Tag Archives: Henry Louis Gates

Navigating the Racial Highway in America

By James Ewers

jewers1If you want to have a good debate or scare people away, then start talking about race.  The ‘race’ word is a powerful one in America’s lexicon and seems to bring out passionate feelings in us. It is a catalyst for both change and status quo. It is my thinking that the word race has brought into context words such as diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion, just to name a few. Many in this country would say that we are simply hung up on race. However, I think our racial healing, or hemorrhaging, is generational. Finally, it seems, young people are not as race-conscious as previous generations, although some may disagree with this statement. What makes the color of a person’s skin the object of so much attention and speculation? Why do some of us base our perceptions about a person solely on their skin color? As we all know, a person’s ability is not based on their skin color but on their competence and cognition. Yet, unfortunately, there are those who will go to their grave thinking otherwise. The uneasiness about race is felt on both sides. Many of our positions and mores about race come from our own experiences. Some of these feelings about race cannot be altered or changed regardless of how many diversity training programs we attend.

Some of our differences as black and white people are quite striking, most notably our responses to race.  I have both black and white friends, and my life is better because of it. But there have been incidents in this country involving race that have elicited such divergent responses I sometimes wonder, “are we looking at the same thing?” So we see things through different lens. There is also an extreme view held by each side about race relations. Some blacks and whites see their own race as the good guys and the other race as the bad guys. I disagree with this view, yet you would be naïve to think that it doesn’t exist.

Race is a slippery slope. Racial attitudes and positions seem to always follow us. Race never takes a break and is like the famous convenience store; it is always open. If you recall just a month ago now a white woman in Pennsylvania alleged that a black man had kidnapped her. We later found out that she was at Disney World. More recently a group of black children were asked to leave a swimming pool for reasons shrouded in race. Both incidents involved race and bad behavior.

So now just a few weeks ago, there was the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the Harvard professor. Reports said that Professor Gates, who is black, had trouble getting into his house. He did get into his house yet by this time the Cambridge, Mass., police had arrived because of a 911 call placed by a local citizen. The police tape of the call never mentioned race, however the police report did. Officer James Crowley, who is white, and Professor Gates had a heated exchange even after Gates showed he was the owner of the home. Professor Gates was taken to the police station in handcuffs. However, throughout all of this we cannot forget that the police are there to protect and to serve whether it is in Cambridge or any other part of the country. Yet I wonder why the police could not have left Gates’ home once proper identity had been established. Because race is so explosive an issue, President Obama having a news conference on health care and other important matters was asked about the incident. President Obama, in my opinion and later by his own admission, used inappropriate language in responding to the reporter’s question. The three men, President Obama, Officer Crowley and Professor Gates met recently at the White House to hash out their differences and hopefully bring some constructive focus to the issue of race.

A lot of Americans are waiting to see if there is a blue print on how to talk about race. Fortunately, many communities have already started the conversation. It is my opinion that the rules of engagement ought to center around honesty, forthrightness and recognition of the need to get it out in the open.

Race and all of its complexities will not go away. If we want our communities to become better then we must be proactive in talking about our differences. Communities that understand each other better will prosper. Those that don’t won’t.

 James B. Ewers, Jr. Ed.D is a higher education consultant and the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.

 

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White Privilege: What if Henry Louis Gates had been White?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009By 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).