Thursday, July 30, 2009

Misbehave....Go to the Office

One of the things I found irritating about the brotherhood of police that lined up in support of Officer Crowley and their attempts to chastise President Obama was how crass they all seemed. They seemed like the very kind of crude police officers that would indeed engage in racial profiling and the kind that I would be afraid of. When one of them referenced the President’s signaling the history of profiling and police brutality, he brushed it off as “whatever the history may be,” we’re not stupid. Probably not, but brushing aside the history of police brutality against black people, especially in Boston, is the height of insensitivity.

Despite what might be said about that, what is refreshing is the air of change that President Obama promised the nation and has delivered in so many small and large ways. Here was a fundamental shift in the imagery of power, transgression and forgiveness. Here is something we have never before witnessed in the entire history of the United States.

A white cop misbehaves himself and wrongfully arrests a black man then he has to go the Office of the President of the United States, who is also a brother, to explain himself and make nice. That’s seismic.

Consider the message that sends to our boys in blue all over the country. They are probably in their squad cars right now, driving slowly past a brother staring him down with contempt as they usually do, but they’re thinking, “What’s the world coming to? That nigger might be Obama’s cousin. Come on Vinnie, let’s go.”

Images matter. For a white cop to have to go the Oval Office and sit down with two brothers – one of whom is the President of the United States, the other of whom is one of the world’s leading scholars at the nation’s oldest university is an image that I will cherish.


Friday, July 24, 2009

What is Javier Saying About Skip?

One possibility...

Los negros en los Estados Unidos piensen que todo el sufrimiento y la injusticia es de ellos. El professor esta detenido y es una crisis nacional. El president se dice que la policia son estupido. Que lastima! Pero que paso con miles de personas Latino que estan detenido cada dia? Donde esta la crisis nacional? Donde esta la investigacion? Justicia es importante, pero no por los negros solamente.


Thursday, July 23, 2009


Skip Gates’ arrest is causing a flurry of angry discussion among black people and perhaps a flurry of quiet nodding of heads among white people. For black men there is no shortage of shared experiences. Nearly all black men have been held up by the police for one reason or another whether they deserved to be or not. If not, they have for sure been the object of derisive suspicion from whoever is behind the counter, looking out the window or walking down the block in the other direction. Saying that Skip Gates is a renown Harvard Professor and if it can happen to him, imagine what could happen to the rest of us, is a moot point in the American black world. That is a lesson that doesn’t need teaching.

Once upon a time it was much easier to assume that the cause of the problem was the racist attitudes of police specifically and white American society in general. Their racial aggression, hatred and ugliness was on public display for all the world to see. In that logic, if a racist American society vilifies black men, then police feel they can enact their barbarism on black men with impunity. Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell among countless others, confirm that this logic still holds. What is increasingly troubling is the possibility of an alternative reason for police brutality in our time. The behavior of many young black men. The bad behavior of so many black men only contributes to the already foul attitudes of the police which worsens our tragically violent relationship with them.

A close colleague of mine has always said that the key to solving the educational divide between black and white kids is for black kids to sit down and study harder. Simple. He does not overlook the structural challenges and racial inequity, but focuses on what we can do for ourselves. That makes all of our claims more clear and effective. When you’ve done all you possibly can do and still come up short, then the argument that you’ve been dealt a poor hand or ineffective tools or public education for black children holds more weight.

The same point holds for black men’s relationship with the police. If, as black men, we would behave ourselves, our relationship with the police could improve. Simple. Then, when their brutality persists we could more easily make the argument that their violence and aggression is fueled by their own wicked and racist nature. In the meantime our argument is undermined by our own behavior.

A woman called into one of the black talk shows in Atlanta recently devastated that the police had shot and killed her son. She was grieving as a mother, but screaming for justice as a parent of a young black boy. I take the side of black first. My immediate response was that the police are foul and here is another brother to add to the list of slain innocents. She went on to say, however, that even though he was armed and got into some scuffle with the police and then this and that happened they didn’t need to shoot him while he was running away. I clearly run the risk of sounding insensitive to her pain, but if he had been behaving himself in the first place it is far more likely that he would still be with her. Righteous behavior is definitely not protection against wickedness, but it does earn you fair to middling odds against being in trouble with the police.

In my neighborhood at the moment, houses are broken into at least a few every week. Almost without a single exception the crimes are being committed by young black men…..with short locks or mohawks, pants hanging down to their knees and long white t-shirts. The police are called repeatedly to be on the lookout for African American males who have just stolen this or that or are suspiciously walking around the side and back of people’s homes looking in their windows.

The behavior of these young brothers in my neighborhood is such that it is logical for the police to be suspicious of black men. They’ve never had a call reporting a young white boy…sandy blonde hair, Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt, dirty University of Georgia baseball hat, nasty flip flops running up the street with a flat screen. I was furious when I was stopped and harassed by the police in front of my own house…African American male, sagging shorts, no shirt, late at night. They made me go inside and show them my i.d. and then promptly threw it back at me and stormed off with, “we got a call about a black guy casing houses in the area.” The police infuriated me, but the root cause of the problem, that I grudgingly had to admit, was the brother who was looking to break into someone’s home.

This is the part of the problem that tears me up. Having been schooled in New York, by Blackful parents and by the Nation, I don’t think for a second that race doesn’t drive some of the ill that befalls black people and black men. It was racist aggression that caused the Cambridge police to continue to arrest Professor Gates after he said it was his home, but it was the logic of precedence caused by other black men that made the police suspicious of him in the first place. Skip Gates is right to be infuriated and I am along with him. But now, as James Baldwin said, “in the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth.”

If, as black men, we want to improve the quality of our lives, then we have to do just that and improve the quality of our lives.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Water and Righteousness

Lately I've felt that I need therapy dealing with some of the challenges of parenthood – perhaps fatherhood more precisely. I have been taking my little girl to swimming lessons for the better part of a year. She swims at the Martin Luther King Natatorium which is in the backyard of the King Center in Atlanta. It seems a righteous place to learn to swim.

She started off with a lot of promise in the beginner’s class with Miss Emma. She quickly learned the beginning skills and was ready to move to the next section. She wasn’t afraid of the water. She has even been to swim in the sea in Barbados and in St. Kitts. When the time came to move to the next level with Brother Ezra, however, she started fussing at poolside and even at school before we went to the class.

She would ask, “do we have swimming today Daddy?” “Do I have to go to Brother Esra’s class?” I would say yes and the tears would start to well up. I’m not sympathetic to fussing like that and would be well on my way to ignorant almost immediately. We would arrive at the class with her fussing and me angry. A few times she started crying and carrying on at poolside and I let my ignorance get the better of me and snatched her out of the pool and we left. Clearly not a comfortable and encouraging environment to learn how to swim – where you need your breathing to be as relaxed as possible.

One of the things that I like about the center is that it is full of black families and children swimming. One day a sister pulled my hand and said, “brother you just need to give her time.” I started to say, “but…” and she interrupted me and said, “Time. She needs time and your patience.” I felt like a school child being scolded. Not only was I being scolded at the pool by sister such and such, my wife was schooling me at home talking about how she’ll be fine and I should stop pressing her so hard. I realize how unreasonable my position was, but having seen what my daughter was capable of in the water, her fear seemed baseless – to me, a father.

I’ve stopped pressing and started just playing in the pool with her. We’ve spent hours and hours in the scorching sun this summer, jumping in the water, climbing out and jumping back in…over and over and over and over again. We’ve quietly gotten to the point where I end up saying, “ole girl, we have to go.” The other part of what the sister said was that, “now you’re mad she won’t get in, but soon you’ll be mad that she won’t get out.”

We went to a lake this fourth of July weekend. My girl jumped off the dock into lake water!! I jumped in and she jumped in right behind me. This might be one of the moments that only parents can appreciate. When she leapt off the dock, about 3 feet above the surface of murky lake water, where she couldn’t see the bottom or what was in the water, my heart leapt out of my chest.