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The Arrest of Professor Gates
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 09/20/2009
This past July, Harvard professor and noted African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. returned home from a trip to China. His front door was stuck, and his keys wouldn’t it. After asking his driver, also African-American, for assistance, Gates went around to the back door, opened it and then, after more effort, managed to get the front door open and went back inside to use his phone.
Unbeknownst to him, someone, a white woman, had seen him trying to get into the house, became suspicious, and called the police. So, while Professor Gates was on the phone, Cambridge police sergeant Jim Crowley, who is white, and his team arrived. Sergeant Crowley saw the professor inside the house, asked him to step out on to the porch and show him his ID, which Professor Gates refused to do. After some time, Gates provided his Harvard University ID, and the sergeant called the Harvard police. At this point, it is reported, the professor became irate, yelled at the police officer, called him a racist, and said, “this is what happens to a black man in America”. When the police prepared to leave, having determined that no break-in had occurred, Gates stepped out onto the porch and “became belligerent”. He was arrested by Sergeant Crowley and charged with disorderly conduct, charges which were later dismissed1.
Most of us who followed the story through the news know what happened next. Gates claimed to be one more among millions of victims of racist police action and racial profiling. Sergeant Crowley claimed to be acting within police guidelines, and said that Gates’ arrest stemmed from his behavior, not his race. The 911 caller, the white woman, protested that she never mentioned race in her call to the police, and that turned out to be true. President Obama referred to the situation in a later press conference and claimed that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly”. That led to some degree of outrage. The president then invited both Gates and Crowley to the White House for what the press called a “beer summit”, which I where I learned that Sergeant Crowley likes the same kind of beer that I do. The so-called beer summit was really more of a garden-side chat, after which all sides claimed to have mended fences and vowed to get along.
There was no fence mended, however, with the American people, who once again – once again, like with Rodney King, like with OJ Simpson – not only looked into the maw that is American racism, but again experienced the racial divide in perspective that makes discussing these situations even more painful.
Because from the typical African American perspective, what happened to Professor Gates this once is just a fact of life for the rest of the black men in this country. Just another clear example of the active racism at work in our nation, and especially with the police.
And from the typical European-American perspective, the typical white perspective, what else could a belligerent, possibly out-of-control man expect from the police, no matter what his background? The police need to safeguard their security, don’t they? Surely the whole event was just a misunderstanding.
President Obama claimed that the Gates arrest was a teachable moment for America, one where we could come together to discuss our different perspectives and learn from each other. I happen to disagree.
To have a teachable moment, you need to have folks who are able to learn. Most importantly, if you are to teach, you need to build on a common understanding that you believe the learners have – just like a 11th grade teacher assumes that the kids in her class learned something in the 10th grade, or History 201 in college assumes information learned in History 101. So again, I don’t believe the Gates arrest is really a teachable moment. And I don’t believe it can be a teachable moment because I don’t believe that most white folks in our country are currently in the position to learn about racism, not the way that racism works in our country in this day and age. I’ll say that again: I don’t believe that most white folks in our country are able to learn about the way racism works in this day and age – not without some groundwork being laid, not without an new foundation built.
And the reason they are they are not in such a position to learn, in my opinion, is because whites in our country generally believe racism to be something that it is not. I’ll say that again, too: White Americans in this day and age generally believe racism to be something that it no longer is.
In my opinion, the last time we had a national discussion on race where we all knew what we were talking about was during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s. Let me be clear – I know that we didn’t agree on the civil rights issue, not by a long shot. But I do believe that at least we knew what we were fighting about. For white folks, the nation was starkly divided then into those people who were for civil rights, which included both blacks and whites, and those who were against civil rights. Those who were against civil rights managed to paint a very strong picture of themselves, back in those days – Racism as segregation, police beatings and mob violence. Denying legal rights to those with dark skin. Restricting freedom of movement, and access to the American dream. A white man using an American flagpole to beat a black man who wants to send black children to a white school. That is racism, it’s true. And it’s horrible.
It’s also pretty easy to see. Pretty easy to identify and label. And in my opinion, it is that label, that identification, that became the picture of racism that largely remains with us European-Americans today.
To their credit, many whites fought against that sort of racism, fought for civil rights, for voting rights and economic rights for all Americans. A lot of these whites fighting racism were Unitarian Universalists, in fact, and still are. These white folks joined with the civil rights movement to create the legal inroads to make sure that the rights of African-Americans in this country were protected. It was a big deal, this work that these white liberals did – and it was at no small cost to them, and it was successful, in large measure. The Civil Rights Bill did pass. The Voting Rights Act did pass. There was much to be proud of, the creation of a strong legal foundation that could lead to genuine racial equality in our nation for the first time since the first European stepped on these shores.
It is interesting to me to ponder how these civil-rights era white folks might have brought their work back home, after the national civil rights battle was largely over. I don’t know if they continued to work locally for racial justice – I’m sure some of them did. I don’t know if they ever expected racism to continue, in new and unexpected ways – maybe some of them did.
But what I know happened is this: these folks went back to their homes and their schools and they raised their white kids to recognize racism by the signs of the pre-civil rights movement, by legal restriction and street violence and lack of access to public services. The civil rights era folks taught their kids that racism is something that happened a long time ago, that Martin Luther King Jr. helped end it with his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and after that speech and the culmination of his work people in our country learned that everyone is equal, and everyone is protected under the law, and people who treat other people differently because of their race are racist – and racists are very, very bad people.
The lesson became: Racism is over. Racists are very, very bad people – probably not at all like people like you and me.
That’s what I learned in school and that’s what my kids are learning in school now. And I believe that this lesson causes a big problem for white folks, the sort of problem that keeps the conversation about things like the arrest of Professor Gates from becoming true conversation starters, true learning moments.
The reason why this lesson that we white kids learn in school is causing a problem is because it is not true. The Civil Rights era did not end racism. Racism is still with us, still in us and still around us. It is a much bigger thing than laws, a much bigger thing than offering the American dream to every American.
Racism is pervasive, it is recurrent, it is constant and it is very much here with us. And while racism is horrible, racism is very, very, bad, through and through…racists are not, not necessarily. And I know that racists are not all very, very bad people because I know that we are all racists, caught up in an evil that sometimes we succumb to but most of the time we don’t know the first thing about how to identify or how to fight. Good people, caught up in an evil we can’t see and don’t understand.
Let me talk about myself for a minute. I come from these sorts of pro-civil rights white people. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were my childhood heroes. I was partially raised in southeast Asia, so I spent a lot of time with folks whose skin color was different from mine – they were my teachers and my parents’ friends and my best friends. I think my parents wanted me to be raised color blind – by their example, they taught me that racism is over, and race doesn’t matter. With their words, they said almost nothing at all about race. But when you are raised color blind as a white person, you become unable to see racism when it happens, and the racism you do see you run away from or quickly silence, because you’ve been taught both how bad racism is, and how much it’s supposed to be already fixed. And how can you ask questions about something that both is really bad, AND doesn’t exist? It’s impossible.
Any sociololgist can tell you that it’s entirely possible to look at the world through the lens of what you have been taught to believe, like you’re looking through a camera with a colored Belief filter on it. The old quote goes “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”2 And so lots of European-American people have created a world around themselves in which what they’ve been taught is true – racism doesn’t really exist anymore, and anyone who is racist is really bad.
Except that believing that is in itself one of the ways racism works, because when you believe that racism doesn’t exist any more you discount the lived experiences of people of color in our country, who experience racism every day. You become unable to see racism working, except for the most overt kinds. You become unable to listen to conversations where racism is discussed, because it’s outside of your own experience – even if that experience is a created one. And, you become unable to believe people who talk about their own experiences with racism, because such talk must be either dangerous or untrue, or both.
And when you can’t see racism because it’s both dangerous and untrue to you, you find yourself doing the cruelest thing of all: of labeling the truth tellers the most damning thing you can think of calling them. In our country, we have gotten into a terrible habit, a habit of calling anyone who talks about racism racist.
I studied racism in graduate school when I was a sociologist. I studied it for an entire year, full time, before I read some pretty obvious book about the lived experiences of middle class African Americans and had what may be one of my dumber Ah Ha! moments. It was then, a full year into the study of racism, that I realized that the relatively racism-free world I thought I had been living in wasn’t the same world that everyone around me was living in. I realized that the racism that I could escape and had been escaping – by cutting off or dismissing the racist comments of my old uncle or my dad’s friend, for example, or by promising myself never again to live in towns that were racially segregated – were situations that people of color around me could never escape.
If my old uncle was occasionally racist with me, he would be constantly racist with my African-American friend. If I could go into a part of town and decide it was “too white” for my highbrow, enlightened tastes, well, that was a part of town that people of color couldn’t go into at all. Racism wasn’t dead, far from it. It had simply been made invisible when we who were often hard-working, well-meaning white folks started telling ourselves that we had fixed the problem.
Even more painful, I began to look into how this more modern racism operates in our society these days, in its secret, underground, insidious ways – and how much I was inadvertently participating in that racism, how much I was a racist, even though I didn’t think I was such a bad person. I learned to see how band-aids were always in the color closer to my skin tone than Michael Jordan’s, for example – and who got to decide that? I saw that I usually got the news from folks from my own cultural background, which made it much easier to believe, even if it wasn’t quite the truth. I noticed that at my kids’ racially diverse school, I tended to smile at the white moms passing me by and not anyone else, as if we were in a secret club that probably understood each other better than any of the other moms of color could understand us, and were more likely to be friends.
And most of all, I learned that although I was living and working and going to school with people who were from different racial backgrounds from my own, I wasn’t living in the same world that they were, not really. I am treated differently every day because of my race. I am treated kindly and given the benefit of the doubt and most of all, most treasured of all, generally trusted by everyone I meet. The world is constructed differently for me every day because I am white, in just the same way that the classroom for those blue eyed kids was arranged so that they benefited for reasons they didn’t deserve. But at the same time that the world was arranged this way, I was told that there was no such thing as this arrangement. There is no such thing as racism anymore, the white world tells us – and now anyone who thinks racism exists is racist, no matter what color their skin.
Waking up to realize the world is racially not as you think can be a cause for revolt, for protest – but we white folks would all be much better off if we allowed it to be a cause for humility and a call for teaching. The first step – if I were to create the 12 step program for racial reconciliation – the first step is to admit there is a problem and you are enmeshed in it and you don’t know what to do. There is hope for us, there is a way forward, once we start to see that we need that education. But again, it takes humility on our part, a letting go of things we have learned are not so, even when they seem to be, a willingness to open our minds, our hearts and our clenched fists to learn something that we should have known all along but somehow we didn’t.
I’d like to end with a quote from a Washington Post article from a white woman, Victoria Cochran, who was raised with a Mexican stepfather who was often stopped by police. She says this:
I understand why white people see [the Gates’ arrest] the way they do. And I understand why it is not like that. If I could be critical of my dominant culture, somebody needs to realize people don’t go around making stuff up like that. If you experience the world as safe and the police as fair, then hearing a police officer behave that way, it stretches belief. You can’t conceive of the police misbehaving themselves. At the same time, you have to say if we are all human beings and people are saying this is happening, you have to suspend your belief and say this is happening.3
This IS happening.
Let us go forth from here with open minds and hearts, with a clear desire to see things as they are, and not as we would wish them. May we see a way forward towards the Beloved Community, where all our experiences are counted and every voice is heard. Amen.