Thursday is the big day. President Barack Obama pops a brew with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Gates’ arresting officer Sargeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department at the White House for an informal chat about…..health care reform. Wouldn’t that be interesting (!?).
But this is supposed to be a “teachable moment” even though the Gates affair hasn’t come up in conversation among most of my friends of any race or class over the past week. [Michael Jackson still rings a bell.]
I’ll raise my hand – “What are we supposed to learn from this teachable moment?” Because there are a lot of teachable moments out there on the mean streets regarding racial profiling and law enforcement for both civilians and police officers. I know people on both sides of the equation. Out of their concern, they have taken time to school me well.
However, here we are at the White House thanks to Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times who asked the final question at the President’s prime time press conference which was called to discuss health care reform. On her blog Sweet insists she didn’t submit her question about Gates to the White House press office contrary to what other journalists have said on the air. Nevertheless, she didn’t miss her opportunity. And so the President obliged Sweet and commented on a local incident in Cambridge, MA involving a prominent African American Harvard professor who had a problem getting into his own home and was mistaken for a burglar. A white policemen in the neighborhood answers the dispatcher call to check out the situation based on a report by a Harvard employee. Though Gates was able to make the case that he was the occupant of the house with the broken front door, apparently the policeman was not as forthcoming with his own identification per Gates’ request. According to the police report some words fly with accusations of racism, a “yo mamma” moment ending with the 58-year-old disabled professor being handcuffed and arrested. Gates was held for 4 hours before being released; the charges have been dropped.
There’s a lot of he said in the police report, he didn’t say in the lawyer’s statement, and now “she said” from Lucian Whaler, who placed the call to police. The recording of the call was released. She makes no reference to the race of the two men on Gates’ porch until the dispatcher asks. With the release of the recording the police report is beginning to look a little dubious. Whalen herself has now lawyered up.
At the same time, I’ve been taking notes to keep up with the lesson plan.
SCHOOL SUPPLIES – THE WHITE HOUSE VISIT
We all know every little detail of this agenda-less meeting will be scrutinized and read for hidden meaning. I suppose an ice cream social would’ve been too loaded with innuendo. Who wants vanilla? Who wants chocolate? I’d be the one asking for dulce de lece. Would that be interpreted as elitist?
Sam Adams would be a good choice because it’s a Massachusetts label. Also the beer has a patriotic ring to it named for Samuel Adams, a patriot of the American Revolution. His image is on every bottle – can’t miss it. They also make a non-alcoholic brew which might be good to have on hand during working hours.
Yuengling might be another wise choice to have around. It’s America’s oldest brewery (from Pennsylvania), founded in 1829. I had some on 4th of July. Pretty good, but then I’m not an expert when it comes to beer.
A local brew of Root Beer. There are some fine root beers brewed around the DC Metropolitan area. While in Massachusetts, I was impressed root beer was a standard beverage on the soda dispensers and at most fast-food joints. DC has turned into a Dr. Pepper nation.
It’s going to be hot, so have plenty cold water available near the swing set.
THE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK: KNOWING WHO AND WHERE YOU ARE IN CONTEXT
When President Obama responded to Sweet’s question, it seemed, he forgot that he is now more than just your average citizen. At least he framed his answer saying Gates was a friend and he was a “littled biased.” In the context of post 9-11, his joke about being shot if he was trying to break into his own house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave had a certain thread of truth, or was that the “Black President” talking? With the exception of the Congress, staff, personal friends and family, “stupid,” noun or adverb, just doesn’t seem to play well for Presidents. They don’t get points when they “punch down” as Markos of Daily Kos puts it. We’ve seen how anything the President recognizes from books to hamburgers to mustard, shoots up in recognition. It’s always best to punch laterally.
Professor Gates may have forgotten that he is less than just your exceptional citizen. Let’s be honest, how many people really watch his specials on PBS vs. “American Idol” on Fox. Apparently being punched down took him by surprise too.
Sargeant Crowley forgets even when you get an “A” in the racial profiling class, doesn’t mean there won’t be a pop quiz.
When Glenn Beck calls a biracial President a “racist” and asserts that Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” i.e. his own people – What do you mean? or should I say “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout Glenn?”
Another little footnote from the homework assignment:
The average salary of a full-time Harvard full professor is $192,600. Harvard pays because it is also a private research facility compared to small colleges or public universities. Add in tenure status, research projects, speaking engagements, book deals, articles, and the occasional PBS special and DVD sales etc., I’d guess Gates could clear on average $1 to $2 million a year.
Radio “entertainer” and Conservative theorist Rush Limbaugh earns $38 million a year.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard professor, journalist, and PBS producer graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a degree in history, and earned a Ph.D. in language and English literature from Cambridge University (UK). Gates’s father worked in a paper mill in West Virginia.
Rush Limbaugh has a high school diploma and attended Southeast Missouri State University for two semesters and a summer before dropping out. According to his mother, “he flunked everything.” Rush’s father worked as an attorney. His grandfather has a U.S. courthouse named for him in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Read into it what you will, but I’m just sayin’.
REMEMBER THE LESSON – DON’T GET CUTE WITH COPS
In high school, we had a class called “Street Law.” One session was devoted to how we handled ourselves if we are approached or stopped by a police officer. We were taught how to conduct ourselves in a traffic situation or on foot. What questions were legal, what questions were infringing on our rights. What to say. What not to say. The main lesson was to stay cool. You had two goals – not to get arrested and/or shot. I got a follow up lesson from police officers in my family and their friends. They said pretty much the same thing, told me what “pisses” cops off, learn to say “yes sir, or mam,” be polite, cool, and again, your goal is not to get arrested and/or shot.
Sometimes you have to sing that Kenny Rogers song to yourself, “The Gambler” when you’re in a situation. “Know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.” Or as the bible says, “Wise as serpents, gentle as lambs.”
NOT ALL RACIAL PROFILES ARE EQUAL
“I’ve heard that there are two situations that make interesting stories: when an extraordinary person is plunged into the commonplace, and when an ordinary person gets invovled in extraordinary events.”
Sister Helen Prejean
In the days after the police report was leaked over the internet, Gates went on a media blitz using his existing platforms like “The Root” and its parent company “The Washington Post” to tell his side of the story. Apparently, PBS will be another outlet for what he describes as a documentary to encompass all the angles of racial profiling and its effects on all the parties involved by race, class, police, citizen inspired by his experience. [Will Gates bring the BET audience over to PBS?]
Then along comes the President who acknowledges that Professor Gates is a friend. Wow! So far that isn’t a liability for either of them. But I’m never sure if Professor Gates wants to prove his innocence or to remind us “how dare you not recognize what an exceptional person I am with powerful friends.” In a radio interview with Gayle King:
GAYLE KING: …did you happen to be watching the news conference when he (President Obama) said that?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR: …I was having dinner with a friend on the upper east side in a little private Italian restaurant and all of a sudden I thought my blackberry was going to explode.
“Private Italian restaurant”? Is there a public or government Italian restaurant option?
In another interview with the professor by his daughter for the on-line magazine, The Daily Beast, edited by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, the first thing I notice is the title: “My Daddy, the Jailbird.” I’m not sure if the editors of The Daily Beast or even Elizabeth Gates realize the title is a “punch down.” Getting arrested is not fun, but considering the outcome for Elizabeth’s father and who he is, the title makes light of what is still painful to children of daddies who are former “jailbirds” or currently serving time. There’s still a profound social stigma children of former inmates or the incarcerated live with and many secrets kept about parents who are in “the system.” Elizabeth’s father was released. The charges dropped. Her daddy will get her a book deal.
EACH ONE TEACH ONE
Over and over, a dialogue on race goes no where when no one wants to talk about racism or is trying to score political points, ratings, rather than move towards the healing place or at least a sane place.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the conversation was carved up into mangeable local dialogues dealing with their own specific issues. For example, what would a training program for the Cambridge police and maybe community workshops and in-school programs created by and/or facilitated by Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley look like? “Class issues” has a place in that syllabus and in that community.
How Gates interprets his teaching moment is up to him. Cambridge and its police force could certainly benefit from his connections and knowledge. And Sergeant Crowley can do what my teachers and police relatives have done for me. What he takes away from his teaching moment is very important to the health, safety and well being of his community as a law enforcement professional.
Imagine hosting a training program at Harvard where I’m sure there has been no lack of friction between local law enforcement and the future masters of the universe. Community is where everybody knows your name.
Now then. Can we get back to my question about health care reform!?