Is racism still an issue now that we’ve elected a black man as president? The incident involving Harvard professor Skip Gates’ arrest at his own home answered the question mainstream America just won’t let go of.
Could Skip have handled the situation differently or better? The answer is yes, and he has admitted that too. I think we can all think of situations we’ve been in that, in hindsight, could have been handled differently or better. But you can’t go back and change the course of events. I don’t believe Skip was wrong — certainly not wrong enough to be arrested, especially after some of the revelations he made on our show. He says throughout most of the encounter, he was on the phone with someone from the homeowner’s association. If he were lying, I think she would have come forward by now.
This black man was arrested in his home on the campus of where he works, and if you don’t see the significance of this fact, you’re missing the point. I can hear it already: “There you go, Tom; what’s the fact that he was a black man have to do with it?” A whole lot. Anybody black who is an adult should be able to relate to the frustration this Harvard professor felt when he had to explain to a cop why he was standing in his own kitchen. Unless you were raised in a vacuum, you’ve had a moment on your job, at your school, at the mall, at the airport … somewhere – where you were put on the defensive simply because you were black. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s blatant, but it happens to black people all the time.
I keep hearing people say that even if the policeman was wrong, Skip should have kept his mouth shut. Everyone, including many of you, can’t keep their mouths shut when they’re being wronged. If everyone had kept their mouths shut, we’d still be on plantations picking cotton. Thank God people were and still are willing to stand up and speak the truth, in spite of its repercussions.
No one can convince me that if Skip Gates had been a white professor at his home on the campus of Harvard, in the same situation, he would have been arrested and put in handcuffs like a common criminal. Maybe Officer Crowley thought that since we have a black president, we’ve forgotten the past, and no longer have flashbacks about the humiliation that comes with not being treated as equals.
Everybody keeps talking about “teachable moments” – well, how about this one: It’s not all brand new for us. As proud as we are of President Obama, not too much has changed. Officer Crowley and those who think like him need to know that Skip Gates grew up in an era where black men were beaten, spat upon and lynched just because they were black men. Skip Gates, like so many men his age, studied hard, worked hard, obeyed the law, played by the rules and probably voted for the first black president.
When Skip Gates is driving his car or trying to get taxi, he’s subjected to all the indignities that racism brings, and he has learned to live with that. But even a brilliant man as he had to get caught up in the hype of his success and stature in the community enough to believe that he wouldn’t be arrested while standing in his own kitchen. He may have even had the audacity to think that in his own kitchen, he could do like white folks and be believed if he had sternly stated, “This is my home.”
On the air with us yesterday, I was moved when I heard him tell the story in his own words, especially when he talked about how the officer could have simply looked at the personal photos on the wall and realized it was his home.
My mentor, John H. Johnson, said to me many years ago that no matter how big you get, no matter how rich you get, no matter how successful, white people will find a way to remind you of the Negro that you are. Officer Crowley found a way to do that to Skip Gates.
Racism is still an issue, and until we deal with it head on, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., Rodney King or President Barack Obama — you will run into people who think you should be kept in your place. You can shut up and take it, or you can stand up and put racism on blast until mainstream America gets the message.