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.