Sunday, July 26, 2009

A case of class & privilege, not race

By Don Klein

If I was arrested for mouthing off to a policeman who came to my house to investigate a suspected illegal break-in no one outside my family and friends would know about it – or care. But when a renown Harvard scholar gets hauled in for the same reason it becomes an issue for presidential comment.

That’s what gets my blood to boil. What gets me even more riled is the fact that everyone immediately applies the wrong reason for the incident in the first place. Of course I am talking about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the professor, by Sgt. James Crowley, the cop.

Gates and all of his defenders, including a disappointingly erring President Obama, claimed that this was a case of racial profiling. My ultra liberal friends are quick to jump up and down derogating a police officer in the rightful performance of his job. They quickly spell out the history of police harassment and abuse of blacks as a justifiable cause for Professor Gates’s extraordinary misbehavior when confronted by the cop.

As I see it what really propelled the brouhaha had nothing to do with race. It was a matter of privilege and class on display in its most blatant configuration. Just take a look at the two main characters in this unhappy scenario. Here is my version:

On the one side we have a distinguished, highly acclaimed man of erudition and stature, the professor himself. Gates, an American literary critic, educator, scholar, author, intellectual, sometimes called "the nation’s most famous black scholar," had just returned home from a long foreign trip only to find his front door jammed.

You can imagine the vexation as the poor guy just wanted to get home, kick off his shoes and relax but frustratingly could not even get passed his front door. He forced the malfunctioning portal, even asked the cab driver who brought him from the airport to help, when a passing neighbor notices the ruckus and calls police. She feared a crime was in progress.

A few minutes later Sgt. Crowley responds to the call and confronts the professor now inside the house. The cop doesn’t know the homeowner once won the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship and was the holder of numerous honorary degrees and awards for teaching, research and development of academic scholarship of black culture. No, all the cop saw is what all cops see upon reaching a possible crime scene – a victim or a culprit. He doesn’t know which at this time.

What is more important is what Professor Gates sees. That’s simple. No one more insignificant than an anonymous street cop banging on his door with inconsequential questions about a break-in that never happened. All Gates wants to do is put an end to a rigorous day and this macho peace officer is pestering him with vacuous questions as "do I live here" and "can I prove it."

Race has not entered anyone’s mind at this point. The cop is doing his job by the book. He is investigating a report of a crime. The professor is at home after an exacting day of travel, being denied the peace and quiet he so readily seeks by the officer. No doubt he might have thought – why is this cretin bothering me with this folderol.

The professor lets loose with a stream of invective he usually reserves for dim-witted students and uses his superior position in the social ladder to demean Sgt. Crowley. "Do you know who I am?" he demands. The officer backs off initially, apparently realizing by now he is dealing with an irate non victim. Gates, overflowing with bravado at Crowley’s retreat in emboldened and continues with a stream of abuse, when his bluff is called. He is arrested.

It is a clear case of social class, not race, at this moment. The superior intellect of Gates was being employed to bulldoze an ordinary cop. But in this case the cop was no pushover as Gates thought he was. Crowley had no racial demerits in his background a la Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles detective in the O.J. Simpson case. Crowley possessed an exemplary record, instructed other policemen on the perils of racial profiling, even tried to save a dying black athletic on a basketball court with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Once arrested Gates no doubt realized that superior intellect was not an adequate defense for disorderly conduct. That’s when he drew the race card and claimed he was hauled in because of his skin color. Unfortunately, the president was dragged into the case and everything skyrocketed out of control because of Obama’s instinctive response in favor what he thought was the black "victim."

It is so easy in this country for a black man to claim victimization. But it was not true in this case and the public concluded it a lot quicker than the black president who still remembers his own experience as a racial target.

When the professor’s lawyer claimed publicly that the case had nothing to do with race, it became clear to me that it was what I suspected from the very beginning. It was a matter of a distinguished Harvard professor’s belief that he stood higher on the social ladder than an ordinary police officer. A modern incarnation George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Higgins or the bitterly
intemperate Sheridan Whiteside, of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" fame.

Everyone now seems to believe that if both parties to this dispute had used cooler heads, none of this would have made the headlines. That clearly is true. What is also true is that when a prominent man uses his blackness to cover up for his behavioral faults he weakens every legitimate claim by other blacks who are truly victims of racism.