Yesterday I dealt with the flashpoint occasion of Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ arrest and spent most of it recounting a situation that happened to me at the beginning of the last school year.

Like Gates I was caught in a narrative I couldn’t get out of. It didn’t matter that I was a faculty member, didn’t matter that I tried to diffuse the situation, didn’t matter that I was leaving anyway. They were going to call campus security on me no matter what. Gates noted that there was a black officer on the scene who was particularly sensitive–they originally handcuffed him in the back, but the black officer convinced them otherwise.

In my case it was the black officers who prevented the situation from escalating as they understood the narrative (“he started raising his voice and making gestures and i felt threatened…”) being deployed against me. I suppose that if I would’ve contacted the news or students, or the black staff and faculty association heads would’ve flown.

But to quote my 4 year old son “that’s not how I roll”.

Dr. Gates’ story is a perfect example of pre- and post-racial politics. Whether it’s Sotomayor, Dr. Gates, the Philly kids who just wanted to swim, or me, these flashpoint examples are examples of non-white “innocents” being treated in a heavy handed manner by hood-wearing (or badge carrying) white racists.

But I noted yesterday that I am less interested in the racial politics angle than in the black politics angle. That is, the central question to me isn’t really whether what happened to Gates or to me would have happened had we not been black–although I asked myself that question as they were trying to jack me. The central question is twofold:

  1.  What would our response have been had Gates been poor and black?
  2. What would Gates’ response been?

These questions deal with black politics rather than racial politics. With the way that scarce resources that are given/withheld BY blacks FROM blacks based on class, gender, and in some cases sexual preference. 

The class dynamics here are particularly stark. Gates is a Harvard Professor, his lawyer (Charles Ogletree) is not only also Harvard Law Professor, but is his friend. As soon as he’s arrested he is able to get his personal secretary to make a call to one of the best civil rights lawyers on the planet. Because he is who he is, he gets instant national (international?) press coverage. And even though he felt he was stuck in a narrative he couldn’t get out of, because of his stature he was able to quickly establish an effective counter-narrative! Check out the introduction of the statement issued by Prof. Ogletree (his lawyer).

How do the sentences establishing his full title, and his whereabouts before the incident work here? For me they work to establish that Gates wasn’t your “regular negro.” (Even though he arguably acted like one–the original police report has been scraped from the web but I believe it, rather than Gates’ statement.) Whereas then-candidate Barack Obama was hesitant to make any type of definitive statement about the Jena 6, last night during his press conference he was quick to label the Cambridge police officer’s action “stupid”.  

Now here’s the stark reality.

Working class and poor black men are treated like this every single minute of every single day. But our–and here I mean not just whites but blacks–response is usually muted at best. Because the entire concept of racial profiling is based on class–on the idea that black middle and upper class men are treated as if they are POOR and black. If Gates wasn’t Gates but John John, we either never hear about it in the media, or (if we live in a black neighborhood) we drive by it without even thinking twice. We routinely withhold care–a political resource–from poor and working class blacks, so we give less than a damn when they get jacked. (This is why Obama’s Father’s Day rhetoric plays so well in black communities.)

I referred to Dr. Melissa Harris Lacewell’s piece in The Nation yesterday. Harris-Lacewell noted that Gates was “apolitical”, a term that I also used.

This isn’t actually right.

Gates has long argued that there were two black Americas–one successful and well-to-do and one well….ghetto. And he’s argued clearly both in print (a 1992 article in Forbes) and on film (his black America documentary) that the black poor are poor not because of structural factors but because of their own poor habits. In fact, watching CNN’s first edition of Black In America (the second one aired last night and continues tonight) was like listening to Gates (and indeed, I believe that Soledad O’Brien was one of his students).

What would Gates do if the victim in this case were poor and black? He’d do what most of do–walk on by. And to the extent he even registered the event in his mind, he’d blame it on the victim. His own body of work says as much. From his perch in the ivory tower he’s done more to justify the way that blackness, poverty, and crime have been linked culturally than most black intellectuals. 

Which brings me back to Grand Canyon.

So now that Gates’ eyes have suddenly been opened as to the criminal justice system–how the hell can you be a Professor of African American Studies and NOT know??–he plans a documentary on it. When I caught a whiff of this the first thing I thought of was Steve Martin’s character in the movie. When Martin’s character gets shot he realizes that he–through his violent movies–was partially responsible for his plight. So the conclusion is obvious right? If his violent movies in fact LED to violence, it was his responsibility to right that wrong by creating other movies.

Gates’ decision reads like Martin’s decision to me. NOW he wants to deal with structural racism, after he feels he’s been almost literally hit over the head with it.

But here’s the thing. By the end of the movie, Martin’s back to his old ways, realizing that philosophical treaties don’t really make good movies. At the end of the day, Gates is a neoliberal with primary expertise in LITERATURE. While I hold out hope for another outcome, I’m thinking that–just like this incident–far more heat than light will be shed on this subject as the result of Gates’ efforts.

Oh. I realize I didn’t actually answer the question posed above. For those not familiar with the question it’s a line from a Malcolm X speech. The answer for him in the sixties? “Nigger.” But for me in the oughts?

Dr. Spence.