News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Was Professor Gates wronged?

Reactions to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the front porch of his home have been widespread – and unfortunately predictable. The incident has evolved into something of a public litmus test of the widely divergent views of racism in the United States. With few exceptions, blacks see Gates’ arrest as evidence of racial prejudice. Conversely, most whites think Gates overacted and the police officer was justified in the arrest, some even saying the professor “played the race card.” The dichotomy over the incident bucks a trend suggesting racial attitudes have improved since the election of Barrack Obama.

According to an April 2009 New York Times/CBS poll, 37% of Americans a year ago believed race relations were “generally bad.” By April of this year, that number had dropped to 22%. However, a wide gap persists between blacks and whites on the level of racial prejudice. More than 60% of African Americans said race relations were “poor” or “not so good” in a July 2008 poll. Meanwhile, 53% of whites held more positive views. The racially-split reactions to the arrest of professor Gates support this evidence.

Curiously, celebrity seems to trump race. Beginning with President Obama, prominent African-Americans enjoy an adoration and awe from whites that belies the suspicion and fears that lurk behind their day-to-day encounters with “real-life” blacks. Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods are just of few of the many black celebrities who transcend racial prejudice. Eddie Murphy tells the story of a group of young white men in a car who yelled “nigger” at him on the street. As the car drew nearer and the young men recognized the target of their wrath, they broke into smiles, waved and yelled “Hi, Eddie.” That event seems to crystallize this paradox.

During yesterday’s news conference, President Obama said the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in the arrest of professor Gates. Will the president’s reaction change the opinion of many whites who see Gates as the culprit? I hope you’ll leave a comment with your thoughts.