I am not Al Sharpton. In fact, I never could be and I don’t want to try. I am also not Henry Louis Gates, a man with an undeniable contribution to the legacy of Black Scholarship in America. I am simply Boyce Watkins, the son of a 17-year old mother and a father who happened to be a high-ranking police official for the past 28 years. I’ve argued with my father for decades, as his Bill Cosby-like views of the world have often made my face twist with confusion. But I listen to my father, because there is value in seeing other points of view.
When I hear about a Black man being mistreated by police, I take a moment of pause. I think about the horrific statistics on Black males in the criminal justice system, in which we are more likely to be arrested for the same crimes, more likely to be convicted, more likely to be incarcerated and expected to get more prison time than our White counterparts.
I think about my uncle, an older brother figure who was pressured into pleading guilty to a case that he wanted to fight, and who is psychologically damaged to this day from the trauma of going to prison as a 17-year old kid. I also think about my own graduate school experience in Kentucky, when I was rudely questioned by an officer after falling asleep in my office the night before a final exam.
But I also think about the experience of good police officers, who put their lives on the line day in and day out, and are constantly forced to grapple with the confused society that comes from 400 years of historical oppression. Whenever a Black man is shot, officers are typically accused of racism, sometimes by those who don’t even know the facts of the case. If a crime goes unpunished, we complain about police not doing their jobs. But when officers arrest the wrong person, we complain that they are being overzealous and perhaps racist. Sometimes they are being racist, even when they don’t intend to be; racism is a disease that affects us all. All of this is compounded by the officer’s fear that he/she might not come home for dinner that night after taking on the most dangerous elements of our society.
I might be kicked out of “The Black scholars club” for saying this, but the truth is that I don’t feel sorry for Henry Louis Gates. America is far more capitalist than it is racist, so a distinguished Harvard University Professor like Gates is likely to get more respect than the average White American. The idea that he is somehow the victim of the same racism that sends poor Black men to prison simply doesn’t fly with me, and Gates should be careful about appearing to exploit the plight of Black men across America to win his battle of egos with the Cambridge Police Department. At worst, Gates has been a victim of racial profiling by the woman who called the police, as well as the officer who may have interpreted his protests as being more belligerent than they actually were. The same thing happens to Black boys in the school system, who are suspended at astronomical rates for bad behavior. The fact that the charges have now been dropped against Gates shows that a mistake has clearly been made.
One can reasonably argue that Professor Gates would not have had this experience if he were a White woman who seemed to “belong” in the neighborhood. I’ve heard officers refer to the “invisible” line in our city, where the rich are protected from the poor, and those who don’t seem to belong are arrested. By being Black, Gates surely crossed the invisible line in his community. However, once Gates proved to the officer that he was the owner of the home, the officer should have simply said “thank you” and left the premises.
One question that can’t be answered is whether or not the officer was being verbally abused by the stereotypical Harvard arrogance of a man who felt that he was above being questioned. Dr. Gates, in all of his frustration, might have been served well to remember that the officer has a gun and that this situation could have been dealt with at a later date. Perhaps telling the officer that he “doesn’t know who he’s messing with” (as the officer alleges) was one way of making sure that the officer knew his place in the “Haaa-vad” (Harvard) pecking order. If that is the case, then I cannot sign off on Dr. Gates’ reaction to the officer who may have been simply trying to do his job.
Basically, this situation may have been a battle of two egos: One of them from a Harvard professor who seemed to feel that he should not be disrespected by a lowly police officer; the other from an officer who seemed to feel that a powerful Black professor could be treated differently from a powerful White professor. What is abundantly clear is that this is NOT the case of a poor Black male being exploited by the racist, classist power structure. Perhaps the next time there is another Jena Six incident, Dr. Gates will fight as diligently for poor Black men as he is fighting for himself, and his fight will go beyond writing papers for academic journals that hardly anyone ever reads. I also hope that Cambridge police officers will give the same credibility to wealthy African Americans as they do to their White counterparts. This situation should never have happened.