In 1991 Lawrence Kasdan directed the film Grand Canyon, starring Steve Martin, Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, and Mary Louise-Parker. Set in Los Angeles, the film traces the way a series of disconnected events ultimately connect and to a certain extent change the characters. Think Crash but subtle. Steve Martin plays a film director, famous for his violent films. After being robbed and shot in the leg, Martin contemplates moving to more philosophical work, work that better speaks to the state of human existence.
When I first heard the news that Henry Louis Gates, Harvard Professor of African American Studies was arrested, and read the report, I had mixed feelings. As Melissa Harris-Lacewell notes, Skip has been apolitical through his entire professional career. What I want to do below is deal with the racial and black politics questions embodied by this case.
The racial politics question boils down to two. The first is, of course, would this have happened had Gates been white. I don’t think this is the real question to ask.
But on the first day of school last year, I had to deal with this myself. On the first Thursday of the Fall semester I was leaving my Introduction to Race and Ethnicity class. Hungry and thirsty because I hadn’t eaten the entire day (the class ended at 4pm), I wanted to get a quick bite before a doctor’s appointment at 5pm. When I walked outside I noticed a department welcome event on the patio of the engineering building.
Moving swiftly into grad student mode (i.e. noticing free food and drink!) I walked over. I asked two women (most departments are staffed by women) whether I could have a drink or two. They said sure, and I grabbed a couple of Sierra Mists, placed my book bag on one of the patio tables so I could organize my stuff in preparation for the long walk to the doctor’s office, and take a breather. As I was about to get ready to leave, one of the staff members came up to me, abrupt and curt.
“We’re going to need you to move your stuff, because we’re going to need this table.”
She confused me with her statement, and with her manner. So I asked her a question.
“Sister [she was white], what did you see me do that made you say this to me?”
Her response was even more abrupt.
“I saw you taking things out of your bag like you were planning on staying.”
I was tired, but didn’t like her tone. So I pushed her further. I knew I was the only black person at the event, and knew I was the only recognizable outsider.
“Sister, what did you see me take out of my bag?” At this point I was getting heated. While my language was respectful and cool, I was turning red, and becoming intense. Her next response floored me.
“I saw….well, you’re just going to have to leave.”
We were outside on a patio where I was a professor. How the hell could she kick me out of a place I was a professor in?
“What’s your name? Where is your supervisor?”
She refused to answer, and she walked away. And I waited, trying to figure out my next move. I wasn’t going to leave, even though I had an appointment. As I was thinking over my options, a (white) man walked over to me. He was the supervisor. Up until this point I hadn’t introduced myself. To defuse the event I thought I would.
“Brother, I’m an Assistant Professor here. I came here from class because I saw that you had an event going on and I was thirsty. The staff was kind enough to let me get a drink. But your one staff member was extremely rude to me. I know that we’re all busy and tired at the beginning of the term….”
All the while he’s nodding, sagely.
“…but I don’t appreciate the way she treated me…”
He lets me finish. Then he drops the hammer.
“I understand what you are saying sir…but we’re going to have to ask you to leave, or we’re going to call security.”
Or we’re going to call security.
My response? Yeah. I got this.
“Oh. I see. Well why don’t we do this. CALL security….and I’ll be waiting RIGHT [pointing] there. Let me know when they come.”
I’d been at Hopkins for three years at this point. Having gone to Michigan I was prepared for all types of micro-racism…but I’d gotten NOTHING. The police were cool, the professors were cool, the students were cool, the staff was cool. This was the first time that I’d ever been treated like this as a professor, and I was pissed. No way in hell they would have treated a white professor like this. No way they would have treated an older gentleman like this.
So I waited. Waited so long in fact that I called security myself, just to make sure that the staff member made the call in the first place!
“Yes. I’m calling to see if there was an incident reported at the engineering building.”
“Let me see….yes there was. Are you somehow involved?”
“Yes. They’re calling about me.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Lester Spence. I’m an Assistant Professor of Political Science.”
When I told her that I was faculty, the dispatcher tripped.
She then told me security was on its way. There were three officers at first, two black, and one white. They talked to the staff members who pointed to me.
They then walked over to me, and I asked one simple question.
“Officers, thanks for coming by so quickly. I’ve just got one question. Do they have the authority to kick a faculty member out of an event held outside on campus?”
“Wait. You’re faculty?”
“Wow. I don’t think I….that doesn’t make much sense to me…I don’t THINK they can…”
“Well listen. If they CAN, then I’ll apologize and go on my merry way. I was leaving anyway. But if they can’t??” I just let that last question hang.
At this point the two black officers walk over to get the story from the staff members. I overhear the white woman I encountered talking:
“And then he started making gestures and getting loud, and I felt threatened.”
BAM! Now at this point I’m pissed, but cracking UP. This is straight textbook 101 type racism right? I made sure I didn’t use foul language, didn’t yell (WAS intense though), weigh all of 150 lbs WET, but somehow I am the threat.
But here’s the kicker. I am convinced that the only reason I had an even–not upper for reasons I’ll explain below–hand here was because the two black officers took the report and stuck around–even when a superior officer (sent by dispatch) came to check in. As soon as the woman told them that she “felt threatened” they understood the politics of the situation and reacted appropriately.
Afterwards, the superior officer was kind enough to drive me to my doctor’s appointment. Later I received a letter of apology from the Dean of the School of Engineering. But when I talked to the conflict resolution folks they stated that I didn’t really have a case. From the woman’s standpoint I treated her differently than I would have treated a man. Which I understand…but doesn’t really explain why they went to the extremes of calling security on a man who was about to leave anyway. The rest of the semester went…I wouldn’t say smoothly but went ok. I lost my keys that day and am pretty sure one of the staff members probably threw them away knowing they were mine. But that’s probably just me.
When Skip talks about getting stuck in the narrative of how police interactions are supposed to go, I feel him. It wasn’t the police in this case, but it was clear that if I would have spoken Greek I would’ve gotten a better response than the one I did.
The staff didn’t hear that I was faculty. The man didn’t hear that I was attempting to diffuse the situation by complimenting the staff for the event and for letting me have a drink in the first place. They didn’t hear that I was already on my way out!
So on that level Gates’ story resonates with me.
I’ll end this here and take it up in part two. And get to why I began with Grand Canyon.