Gatesgate – Part II
The brouhaha about Dr. Gates continues into the third day and I find myself answering the question, “Why are we so far apart? Why do we disagree so much on the reactions of both man?” Before we can answer the questions as to why the divergent viewpoints, there is a more critical question….WHO are the disagreeing parties?
Several years ago I was standing in the hall way of the high school where I worked until my retirement. Since it was my so called “free period” (translation –I wasn’t scheduled to teach) I was monitoring the hall. The white (and I use this racial description merely to establish parameters) kid coming down the hall was probably a freshman, he obviously hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet . Since the young man wasn’t one of the habitual hall walkers, I stood quietly against the wall and waited for him to come closer. About that time, the principal, a tall black (again I am establishing parameters) man, bolted out of his office door and in the manner of large school principals confronted with too man children in the hall, immediately started yelling at the kid.
“Why are you in the hall? Where are you supposed to me? Where is your pass? Why aren’t you looking me in the eyes?” At that point I came off the wall, raised my voice a notch and in a tone of urgency, “Mr. Williams, I need to see you a moment…NOW.” Since I rarely raise my voice, the principal caught the fact that I needed an immediate action so his next comment to the kid in the hall was, “You wait right here, I need to see this teacher.”
Very quietly I spoke to the principal. “Stop yelling at that student, You have scared him to death. He is NOT disrespecting you or your authority…he is trying his best to be respectful ….and polite!” Now that I had his attention, I could continue. “You are asking him to look you in the eyes and if he does, that is extreme disrespect!”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand….?”
“This kid is Appalachian and well bred Appalachian children never look an adult in the eyes, especially one who is chastising them. If a kid makes that mistake, they expect to be backhanded and I do mean backhanded immediately!” I waited a second for my message to sink in…then continued, “I know……because my four foot eleven inch (Appalachian) grandmother would already have used her left hand on my face!” The principal looked at me and then asked, “Are you serious?” I nodded and said quietly, “As serious as a massive heart attack.” The principal looked at me questioningly and I nodded in the affirmative.
Mr. Williams wheeled around and turned back to the kid, “Come on my man and walk with me for a few minutes. I need to go in the cafeteria and get something to eat…..I didn’t eat breakfast this morning. Now, you sit right here and wait for me.” The tall man went back into the kitchen and came back with his coffee, a milk, an orange juice and two sausage and egg sandwiches. He kept one sandwich and the coffee and gave the rest to the kid. “Sit here with me a minute while we eat and then, I’ll walk you back to class. You are not in trouble. Whose class are you supposed to be in…don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” The instance had moved from a “he’s picking on me” scenario to a male bonding routine and the anger on both sides had been diffused. Because the principal trusted my judgment, I had been able to intervene in a situation which could have had very negative results. Because the adult male was listening and trying to bridge the gap between two cultures, he had gained the student’s respect and trust, a trust that would continue until the student left school…because that kid knew he could ask to see “Mr. Williams” if there was a problem and the man would listen (and not overreact).
What happened in Dr. Gates situation was a little more complicated. Any black man and many other men of minority cultures understood exactly what happened (without further explanation) and the extreme out of context disrespect shown by the Cambridge cop. Sadly it appears that the cop either does not know what he did wrong or does not care! Ironically when the chief of police says that his officer had actually taught a class on “racial profiling” at the police academy…..the majority of black men around me reacted with “Sure, he did. He probably taught them how to profile!” Sad but true.
My family lives in a small mid-western city. A few years ago we had a chemical accident in our town, an accident that required the town to be evacuated because of excessive smoke and fumes. My husband and I had been out in our neighborhood, about three or four blocks from home when the smoke began to cover the sky. We turned the car around and headed home. When we came to the four-way stop down the street, a police car pulled up behind us. In my rear view mirror, I watched the cop on his radio and said to my husband…”There’s a cop behind us and he is running our license plates. Don’t look back, let’s see what happens.” I knew the second the cop got a reply because he suddenly peeled out and made a sudden left hand turn into the next alley….which took him away from us. That officer had common sense enough to check facts before he did something with negative results.
If Crowley had backed out of the situation and apologized to Dr. Gates as soon as he verified his identity, the incident would not have escalated into the national news. Instead Crowley’s ego went into power trip overdrive. Why do I come to this conclusion?
1. Age difference – A 60 year old college professor who is in his own house expects to be treated with respect, not with Gestapo tactics and threats. Any cop coming to my door had best stand on my stoop and wait until he is (or isn’t) invited in and if he hasn’t had time to go through the amenities, his explanations should be prompt and logical.
2. If this cop is such an expert on racial profiling (and I doubt he is), he should have immediately understood how his posturing and presence would appear to Dr. Gates. The fact that he didn’t is cultural unawareness (remember the “he’s not looking me in the eyes..” response of the principal).
3. Testosterone overdrive- (or I’m gonna show this nigger who’s boss)!
At this point Crowley knew (or should have known) he had overstepped his bounds but he was hell bent on being “in charge.” The minute Dr. Gates asked for a name and badge number (which is his right), Crowley knew (or should have known) the situation had been reversed. Instead testosterone overdrive escalated (again, I’m gonna show this nigger who’s boss).
4. FOP support- Oh come on! Do you really think any union is going to admit publicly that one of its members screwed up? As a former union steward and board member, I know better. The private communication might be “How could you do something so stupid?” but publicly, the union is probably not going to criticize its member. However, this situation is very dicey, the union is walking a very thin line.
5. I also have to say, this. The “I tried to save Reggie Lewis” excuse sounds too much like the “some of my best friends are black (white, pink, purple and/or polka dotted)” cliché. Frankly, if these people of different ethnicities and cultures were your friends, you would know better than to deliberately take actions which would be offensive to them.
My final reaction has to be that racism and a lot of other “isms” are “as American as apple pie.” This country is supposed to be a melting pot of cultures, languages , and peoples. Too often we focus on the ways that we are alike and tend to forget that the ways we are different are just as important. Whether you choose to be a teacher, a preacher, a police officer, a social worker or whatever…..understanding the different cultures and languages that make up this country are endemic to the success of you job.
The English as a Second Language teacher who had Moslem students copying phrases from an English language Bible was just as (culturally) wrong as she could be and couldn’t figure out why the children’s parents were angry. After all, she didn’t do anything wrong! REALLY! Think about it!