Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Am Henry Louis Gates Jr.

By now I'm sure Baha'i Thought readers have heard about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If not you can read about this strange tale that has prompted commentary from even the President of the United States here. I will leave it to others to continue debating whether or not the incident represents racial profiling by the officer involved or playing the race card by an angry black man. What I'm thinking about is the class dimension of this incident, especially as a middle-class, Ivy League educated Black man. Usually when I hear stories of Black men having questionable interactions with the police they involve men from the urban or rural underclass. What these men and I share in skin color, we lack in socioeconomic status a distinction that shapes our experiences of the color-line differently. When I look at the photo of the arrest of Dr. Gates however, I see not only a Black man but a Black man who represents who I am and who I aspire to be. I see myself in that photo and am reminded that my class privilege does not guarantee dignified treatment. I believe it was the poet Audrey Lourde who said, "Your silence will not protect you." To paraphrase Lourde, the Gates incident suggests to privileged African Americans, "Your class will not protect you."

"Immeasurably exalted art Thou, O Lord! Protect us from what lieth in front of us and behind us, above our heads, on our right, on our left, below our feet and every other side to which we are exposed. Verily, Thy protection over all things is unfailing." The Bab


  1. I'm going need to remain neutral on this one because I'm torn between 2 opposite feelings...

    on the one hand as Baha'i citizens we are obligated by principle that we are to obey the law even if it is an unjust system... for example how patient the Baha'is of Iran have been treated under FAR WORSE conditions...

    On the other hand since the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001 anyone from the middle east has been the victim of racial profiling ...

    I can attest to some Iranian Friends who have been victims of such ....

    My only conclusion is that there needs to be a lot of consultation between the law enforcement community and the general civilian population before some foolish things are said

  2. Terry,

    Obedience to the law of the land does not mean a person cannot also respond to what one believes to be an injustice. Obedience does not imply either passivity or silence as the Iranian Baha'is have demonstrated. The question of whether or not justice was done in this case. When and how the state exercises its power (in this case through police)is a legitimate discussion which citizens can and should be having and seems to me completely consistent with Baha'i principles. Baha'is are tasked with obedience to government but we are also tasked with being defenders of every victim of oppression and champions of justice. If we believe that injustice was done in this situation we are obligated to say so.

    That I could find myself in a similar situation to Gates is something I have to live with on a daily basis. I think that's wrong and saying so is the right thing to do.

  3. Mithra7:06 PM

    When I was reading about the incident online it seemed to me that anyone, regardless of skin color, would have been arrested when behaving the way Gates did. If I holler and scream and accuse a police officer of various things, I can expect to be arrested for disorderly conduct, even though I'm a white girl.

  4. I agree....

    Now let's relate on a personal note of an event that happened 6 months ago...

    I was with another Baha'i friend and we were performing come community service within a predominantly African-American community ...

    Part of this was taking a patient from her house to a drug treatment center...

    Unknown to me was that her house was under surveillance by the local constabulary.

    We were stopped and questioned by 2 police officers who questioned me and my partner

    I presume we were being profiled because the only reason 2 white guys were going to any house in a black neighborhood were to purchase illegal narcotics ...If I behaved like Mister Gates I am quite sure they would have arrested me for disorderly conduct....

    Then they later informed us that the house was being observed because of reported illegal drug transactions...

    I invited the officers to to inspect my vehicle because I had nothing to hide....

    since then we've had occasional contact with the Police and we let them do their job and we did ours...

  5. Anonymous1:50 AM

    Maybe if you had to deal with years of unfair suspicion from police, and then they asked you to step outside your own home when you could prove that you live there, you might be quite upset. And then you have a right to see the police officer's identification, too. People can pose as police officers.

    Maybe a person doesn't have to get arrested for expressing indignation at such a characteristic example of disrespectful treatment from what is ostensibly an institution of justice.

    Your story about complying with police questioning even when you were being "white profiled" is kind of a wince-inducing example of trying to minimize the problem of racism by alluding to the mythical "reverse racism" and your supposedly superior conduct in the face of it. The fact is that your situation is not at all comparable, and it's not appropriate to insinuate that it is.

  6. Phillipe7:21 AM

    For those saying they would have expected to be arrested why would you expect to be arrested and is that actually right or not? Anyone might have gotten angry in a situation such as this and police know that. They have discretion in how to deal with it and are entrusted with exercising their power appropriately. Where was the threat to public safety in this situation? Why was an arrest the right thing to do? Was that really the best use of tax payer time and money when there are people actually committing serious crimes in that community? If it is true that a person acting like Gates did would get arrested regardless of race (a highly debatable point by the way) do we really believe that is just? If so, why?

  7. We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

    1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

    2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

    3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

    There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.

  8. An excellent approach to this incident, the concept of "defense by class association." As Baha'is we hope that socio-economic class will have no more meaning than skin color; however, we know that in the US (and most of the world) one's class or clan has market value.

    Many in India are currently upset because a US airline performed the same security checks upon their ex-President that were used upon all the other passengers. Why? Have you ever waited in a long line at US Immigrations, only to see some VIP whisked past the hoi polloi?

    So, is the "class card" as effective as the "race card?" The Professor tried both to no effect. However, ultimately he was freed and charges dropped -- that was the "class card" in action; a poor or middle-class man of any color would still be sitting in lockup, or out on bail, after verbally abusing a police officer.

  9. Phillipe, I wonder how do you think you would have responded if this was you? I ask this because I was thinking, What might have been different if people decided their behavior based on the questions, Will my behavior further oneness, or help to heal the wounds of racism? I mean this from both Mr. Gates perspective as well as the police. Can you imagine if the police approached him as a friend? You seem to be the perfect person to look at this incident and to put the Baha'i perspective on it. A persons history can not be taken out of the equation but how does the influence of Baha'u'llahs message effect who we are, who we can be? This question of standing for justice in a way that most powerful is an important one and as Baha'is we seem to be involved in that discussion more and more. Clearly we are not meant to be silent.

  10. Two thoughts.

    One is - which black man should you identify with? There are two in the picture.

    Second is - Being ill-treated isn't a province of the well-to-do. It just seems rarer to the upper classes. Being ill-treated isn't a product of what you do or don't do or how you lead your life or not. It's about how others see you. If they have reason to see you in a poor light few will withhold their contempt. If they have reason to see you in a positive light few will withhold their praise of you. Neither may reflect the real you. The more outrage you feel at ill treatment, and the more pride you feel at being honored, are in direct proportion to how you are attached to how you others see you. And few of us will withhold our outrage or pride when these things come.

    But who does withhold effusive praise or from crowd pleasing tomato throwing or fire-hosing. And who is not swelled by praise or depressed and angered by being put down?