Harvard Professor Plays the Race Card

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. cried foul when a neighbor’s call to the police resulted in his arrest at the door to his own home, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Refusing, allegedly, to identify himself to a responding Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer didn’t help law enforcement appreciate that the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was the rightful owner of the home — a far cry from the intruder his neighbor feared.

Professor Gates Jr. may not have intended to bait the officer into arresting him, but that’s the effect his apparent refusal to cooperate had.

“Is this what it means to be a black man in America?”, the professor rhetorically opined.

If “what it means” refers to negative racial assumptions applied to oneself — ascribing to the color of one’s skin the power to draw negative and unfair treatment — then yes. But in very real way, who or what is proposing the racism — the past or the present? Someone else — or the professor himself?

Psychologists call the phenomena of blurring the lines between the motivations of self and others “transference“. It’s no secret that sometimes we project our own assumptions on others, in this case an officer caught between a nosy neighbor and a prejudicially-minded professor.

To view this situation through a racial lens is tempting, but to anyone without skin color on which to blame such a snafu, far less personal explanations would undoubtedly occur: A) Install a motion-sensor light so that neighbors can appreciate that the shadowy figure attempting to enter the house is, in fact, the homeowner vs. an intruder; B) Note to self that it is time to actually get to know one’s neighbors so that they know I belong here and vise versa; and C) Attend and/or organize a Neighborhood Watch meeting. After all, how can we look out for each other’s personal property when we don’t even recognize each other?

Had the professor been someone whose livelihood was not so enmeshed with the burdens of history, perhaps a more telling question would have emerged from his experience: Is this what community breakdown looks like in America?

What’s wrong with society when we don’t recognize our neighbors? When we don’t bother to introduce ourselves? When we are too busy to have a life that connects in any way, shape or form with those who live, in many instances, a few feet away?

The professor’s statement is troubling at a number of levels. True, one can ascribe troubles in life to history, economic background or just about any perceived barrier. And yes, such conclusions may even be justified. But when we interpret life through this perceptual filter, who suffers for those determinations: the people or circumstances that shouldn’t be the way they are — or ourselves?

When we blame skin color, looks, family, kids, spouse — what we are really doing is giving away our personal power. We are acknowledging, essentially, that “something” or “someone” controls us. If we want race, gender, creed, age or any number of other factors to wield that level of influence, we will find ample evidence suggesting that it can and does.

As we think, so we see — and so we do. This clashes with the prevailing notion that as life is, so we perceive, so we react. Pointing out a racial slight is not an offensive against racism — it is to feed into the idea that racism has a life of its own apart from us. This succeeds only in breathing new life into old stereotypes.

It isn’t the responding officer who set out to express his or her racism. The professor seemingly supplied plenty of his own assumptions. And therein lies the problem with the way in which academia promotes multicultural and ethnic awareness in general: the perverse perpetuation of history’s uglier sentiments. Like a communicable infection, once we embrace “the grudge” — over-identifying with the victim or the victimizer —we’ve incorporated their attitudes into our own.

History isn’t static. We are its vectors.

To learn about the past is one thing. To invite the painful aspects of the past to dominate the present day is another. There is a world of difference between acknowledging a problem at the societal level as opposed to fanning the flames of hostility at a personal level — particularly when those sentiments may not have been motivators in the first place. In this instance, had the police officer “racially profiled” the professor by intentionally stopping in front of the professor’s house while on routine patrols — even while ignoring a number of non-black neighbors entering their own homes — Professor Gates Jr. would have due cause for alarm. But the facts as they have been portrayed simply don’t support this conclusion. If anyone or anything is to blame at all, it is a problem all too common in modern America: Neighborhoods so devoid of community that nobody knows any better, and the most basic of social connections are unduly neglected.

Victim status does nothing to change the past, but it may skew our individual trajectories in life. And while victimization may not begin with a choice, it dies or lives to see another day for highly personal reasons. Victimhood is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy about our lives, relationships, ethnicity or potential as it relates to a recollection or dominating influence. That doesn’t mean powerful influences and limitations don’t exist, or that racism, in this instance, is a thing of the past. Yet when someone as esteemed and educated as Professor Gates Jr. points a finger, everyone sits up and takes notice.

This is not his finest moment.

The professor’s job is to convey history — not to repeat it. Like an actor who has over-identified with his character, it would appear that Professor Gates Jr. is in need of detox. The antidote to victimization is not more talk of victimization, but forgiveness. We forgive not so that we can forget, but so that we may reclaim authority and ownership in our lives. To the extent we call upon the past to explain the present, we are beholden to the act of looking over our shoulders — the somebody-or-something-is-out-to-get-me mentality.

That’s no way to live life. Or in Professor Gates Jr.’s case — no way to teach us to lead ours.

###

Resources:

Juan Williams on African American Victimhood | NPR

Social Isolation Growing in US, Study Says | The Washington Post

Straight Talk to Conservatives: What it Will Take in 2012

The 2008 presidential election offered an opportunity to nominate a candidate who offered a proven mix of conservative and libertarian principles. This individual had 30-some years of experience and unprecedented grassroots support. Although he was the only candidate to counterbalance Barack Obama’s cult-like following with generous numbers of his own homegrown supporters, he never had a shot at the Republican party nomination. He was just too radical for our postmodern times in which questioning the economic sustainability of policing the world and the necessity of Big Government agencies has become taboo.

It is more than ironic how the most “liberal Democrat” in the Senate and an alleged socialist was nominated for the Democratic party and ultimately elected to the presidency, while the candidate who most sharply counterbalanced Obama’s liberalism wasn’t deemed fit for the Republican ticket. This election year, Republicans were seemingly fearful of foregoing a supposedly moderate candidate (Sen. McCain) in favor of nominating an extreme candidate (Rep. Ron Paul). Yet that very act on the flip side of the ticket — pandering to extremes — didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats.

Sen. McCain’s attempt to distance himself from the religious conservative “base” in effect hung those supporters out to dry, a less-than-conciliatory decision that only ceded territory to President-elect Obama. Having said that, however, it would be remiss not to lay some of the responsibility at the feet of religious conservatives: They had their pick of not one but two experienced candidates with a staunchly pro-life position, among other issues, yet aided and abetted by FOX News & Friends sent Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Mike Huckabee packing.

For all this seemingly partisan commentary, the lion’s share of blame for the loss of the 2008 presidential election belongs at the feet of those who, without compunction, perpetuate the notion that only Republicans care if the nation is attacked by terrorists (or any other ill for that matter). Crackpots like these were present at McCain’s rallies, publicized in the media and ultimately responsible for infusing the McCain campaign not only with a negative tone but a paranoid one. This is the type of PR that no campaign strategist needs or wants, yet Sarah Palin, in particular, attracted the fear and hate-mongers like flies. Toward the end, McCain campaign staffers privately assailed Palin as a “diva”, a loose cannon. In all likelihood, however, Palin made an easy scapegoat for McCain staffers frustrated by the off balance elements who consistently reared their hostile heads at rallies.

Republicans cannot save face until they admit that the Bush Administration has given conservatism a bad rap. President Bush, given not one but two terms and the hindsight of the horrors of 911, failed just as miserably to take out Osama bin Laden as President Clinton. The Bush Administration’s support of surveillance state technologies has violated the Fourth Amendment vis-à-vis former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his even more irreverent replacement, Alberto Gonzales. The Bush Administration yanked our chains after 911, compelling a great deal of the American public to perceive a link between Iraq and 911 that didn’t exist, bungled intelligence that by the 2004 election had already come to light. Yet playing upon our post-911 fear to revive his father’s war — removing Saddam Hussein from power, an otherwise admirable aim but for its poor timing and convenient sales pitch — failed to cost President Bush a second term in office. In no small part that is because many of his hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil supporters refused to call a spade a spade.

Loyalty to a wartime president is one thing, deeming the Bush Administration infallible, another entirely. That President Bush’s tenor in the White House lived to see another term during which the economy has collapsed and his reputation has further suffered can be attributed to those who refused to read the writing on the wall. The Bush Administration could have been given a graceful exit in 2004, which may have made the “fall guy” for the ensuing four years a single-term Democrat (Sen. John Kerry). Instead, the reelection of President Bush paved the way for Obama, who like President Clinton, may occupy the Oval Office for a long, long time.

Make no mistake, however: The sins of the GOP are by no means relegated to the Bush Administration. For over 25 years Republican leadership has practiced Big Government even as they win elections claiming to represent the opposite. In view of these many contradictions, the irony that so many conservatives harp on fears of a liberal takeover is nothing less than dumbfounding. The nation witnessed the Clinton Administration reform welfare so that it can no longer serve as a permanent crutch, and the Clinton Administration exited office with the first budget surplus in decades. How can anyone in their right mind make a Democrats-are-capable-of-no-good argument with a straight face? Are we still living in 1993? No one will argue that the Clinton years were idyllic. But one thing President Clinton didn’t do is commit presumed liberal sins: tax us into oblivion and run the nation into record deficits. We have President Reagan, H. W. Bush and G. W. Bush to thank for those.

For Republicans to come out ahead in the next presidential election, a period of deep introspection is in order. The actions of Republican leaders have been a part of the problem. Liberals have been perennial favorites in the conservative media shooting gallery for so long that conservatives risk appearing off balance for never so much as aiming a token shot at the bad actors within their own party. Confessing the sins within the Republican ranks would go a long way toward restoring conservative moral and intellectual credibility. It might even win back the respect — and the votes — of those who became disenfranchised enough to “go Blue”.

Only time will tell if GOP leaders and their supporters have the courage to clean house. If conservatives don’t want President-elect Obama or like Democrat to trump the GOP again in 2012, they need to cut out the arrogance and don some humility. The same goes for the poor sports making doom-and-gloom predictions on talk radio and television, forwarding baseless political email rumors to the discredit of their own intelligence, and posting off-kilter comments on news items and blogs. It is all well and good for Republicans to express disappointment over the election outcome, concern even. In fact, given all the problems the President-elect faces, it would be irrational not to feel some degree of trepidation about the future. Voicing over-the-top paranoia, on the other hand, is just plain self destructive.

Bottom line? Republicans need to step out of their own way. If conservatives aren’t too proud to do so, they just might find cause for celebration in 2012.

###