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Harvard Professor Arrested – When Anger Meets Authority

Harvard Professor Arrested – When Anger Meets Authority

We humans are subject to self deception and our experiences may very well be shaped by forces beyond our control which give us a distorted sense of reality. The wisdom of that conclusion was made crystal clear recently as I read reports of Harvard Professor Arrested which concerned the arrest of the eminent Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

My first impulse was to say that has never happened to me and I have traveled the world. Let me explain. When I was practicing law, I made the mistake of buying a blue Chevy Camaro convertible which refused to go the speed limit. One day I ran through a “speed trap” and was stopped by a motorcycle cop. I introduced myself as an attorney and the officer explained that since so many other officers had witnessed my speeding he had to give me a ticket. The officer then asked if I had insurance which I showed him proof that I did. To my surprise, the officer wrote me a ticket for not having insurance which was later dismissed.

But even before I became an attorney, while I was in law school, I was stopped one night for alleged drunken driving. As I underwent the usual sobriety tests, I was not passing at all. Then the officer told me to do the walking the line test. By then, my adrenaline kicked into high gear and I said to the officer that I would do the test on the condition that if I passed he would let me go. The officer agreed. I passed the test and the officer let me go with a warning to slow down and get home safely.

Then, as I was leaving the practice of law, I had a trial in West Texas which has a reputation of being anything but kind to Blacks. On my way back from a victorious trial, I stopped and had a beer since there was nothing stronger in the area. Those of you who know me well know that beer and I are not very good friends. Well, I got stopped by a policeman who could smell the alcohol on my breath. I explained to the officer that I was just tired since I had gotten up before sunrise to drive to West Texas. The officer invited me to sit in the back seat of his car and then asked me to recite my ABCs. I have five college degrees. But on that hot day in West Texas and under the influence of one beer, I could not recite my ABCs.

The officer had every right to haul me in to jail. But he did not. He asked if anyone in the car could drive and luckily my client was able to drive and we got home safely. Each time, the officer involved was white. These experiences would lead me to conclude that there is no racial profiling. But that would be err. Even though it has not been my experience, I know that racial profiling is real and it is a continuing unjust but vital part of police work. And the really sad part of the story is that most Black police officers look the other way because they want to fit in — to be one of the boys.

Another colleague of Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, has written that being Black means that at any given moment in any part of the world we are subject to being judged solely on the basis of our skin color. Dr. West writes about how, even in a suit, he had difficulty getting a cab in New York City. I have never had a problem hailing a taxi in New York City. However, I do not discount the experience of Dr. West. So how are we to make sense of what happened to Dr. Gates?

Although I was not there, I am almost certain of what happened. Here are the facts. Dr. Gates had a long flight from China. I have made that flight numerous times and I know how tiring and even stressful it can be. He is frustrated and angered that he cannot get into his house. But there is a deeper anger deep within the psyche of Dr. Gates that is in all of us Blacks. There is a black rage that lingers from centuries of abuse and injustice. That anger is compounded by the frustration that Dr. West’s definition of Black is all too real to those of us who would like to think that we can transcend that trap. Surely it must have been devastating for that reality to hit an already tired and stressed Black Professor.

And to expand on Dr. West’s definition of being Black, being Black means that at any moment, you can and will explode into rage that might be disproportionate to the present circumstances. So it was for Dr. Gates. His anger, released by stress and frustration, exploded at a most inopportune moment.

The police officer, a sergeant which means he is just beginning to enjoy some semblance of authority, tired of being talked down to by his superiors, reacted inappropriately when his authority was challenged. Anger met authority and that is always a volatile situation. One would think that police officers are trained to be sensitive to Black rage and take steps to deescalate such situations.

I think it is instructive that this incident happened in one of the most liberal cities in America and with a professor from perhaps the most liberal university in America and that it happened while we have a Black President. The election of an African American president does not mean that we are in a post-racial USA, whatever that phrase means. There are still deep seated prejudices and angers which need to be addressed.