UNDER THE BAOBOB, CDT, 7/26/09
We celebrated the election of President Obama as a sign of how far America has progressed in race relations. From a society erected on the enslavement of one race of people by another we had evolved into a country where a member of that enslaved race could become the President. We believed we were on the road to recovery from the debilitating pandemic of racism. Incidents last week remind us that we may be on the road but we haven’t yet reached the destination.
Prof. Henry Gates, a prominent scholar at Harvard, was handcuffed and arrested in his home primarily because he was an African-American. A white woman, in Gates’ Cambridge neighborhood called the police when she saw two black men pushing against the door around noon. A police sergeant arrived and found Gates inside the house. Gates who had just returned from a week long project, had come in through the back door because the front door was jammed. The policeman demanded identification. Gates produced drivers license and Harvard ID. What followed is in dispute. But, what did NOT happen was that the policeman did not tip his hat, apologize, and ride off into the afternoon. He apparently expressed some suspicion that this fine Cambridge home belonged to Gates. Gates apparently expressed some consternation that he should be harassed in his own home. Gates was arrested. A minor scandal, you say, but it couldn’t happen in State College?
Last Spring break I went to pick up my wife at the Carnegie Building where she was working late one Sunday night. The campus was deserted. I was waiting for her when someone came by and stared into the car. I waved and smiled. They moved on. Jo came out and we drove the three blocks to our home on Atherton just past Park. A police car started following us. As we made the left turn into our driveway, the police car turned on their special lights and siren, two other police cars appeared, lights blaring, blocking our egress. I started to exit the car; I was warned to get back in and remain still. Jo being less used to such police tactics than I, attempted to get out on her side. She, too, was warned to stay in the car.
The police searched through the car with their flashlights. I handed over my license and PSU ID. When I asked, “what was wrong, officers?” I was told curtly that I had made right hand turn into the left lane. We were theonly cars on the street at that hour. I was asked whether this was my house. I was tempted to say it really belonged to the bank but curbed my wit. Though it hurts, though it’s demeaning, though it is humiliating to be treated like a common criminal in front of your wife, you learn, as a Black man in America, to just shut up if you want to survive. They verified my ID and drove off.
Not here? Not now? Not Yet.