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August 4, 2009

“Uppity Negro” vs. “Racist Pig”

Roy Meachum

Any American who can see or hear knows exactly who are the “uppity negro” and the “racist pig.” That’s how each is described by radical elements in both camps. Their names may not be remembered. Their professions are: Harvard professor and Cambridge Police sergeant. The reality will probably offend more Henry Louis Gates, Jr., than James Crowley.


And that’s much of the problem. And the quandary.


A dispassionate observer may express skepticism that Sergeant Crowley did not know that Professor Gates was the resident of the house when he responded to a citizen’s break-in report. The Harvard-owned property was surely on a police department list of places that were to receive special attention. Furthermore, to reach sergeant, James Crowley spent years serving and protecting the Boston suburb that claims two of America’s most prestigious universities; the other is MIT. In those years he should have been aware of the identity of the highly publicized African American academic and Cambridge resident.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., certainly knows who he is. By way of reassurance the star of Public Broadcasting Service television programs was used to people recognizing him on the street. The incident occurred at the moment he had returned from shooting in Asia for his third PBS series, “Faces of America.” In reviewing one of his shows, a New York Times writer observed: “It is hard to disparage anything Mr. Gates does on television; he is easily our most charming public intellectual, displaying none of the blowhard, curmudgeon tendencies of his species.”


Particularly within the black community looms the question: Would the arrest have been made if Professor Gates were white? The answer provided by most African Americans and some white liberals: No way. As I see it: The confrontation came down to celebrity vs. authority. Race had little to do with it.


A Frederick black friend said, “I hope he (Mr. Gates) didn’t ask ‘Do you know who I am?’” The media did not report his using those exact words. In effect, that’s exactly what the professor said, I have no doubt.


Having been told by the Harvard professor and TV host of his fame, Sergeant Crowley’s reaction: Nobody is above the law. That’s how he justified the arrest. Was that really justification? Cambridge Police brass gave a negative answer when they cancelled the arrest, the very next day. The president entered the rhubarb on the side of the department’s top cops.


In my mind, both parties acted “stupidly”—to use Mr. Obama’s word.

They reacted to each other rather than reality. Maybe Sergeant Crowley did not know who Mr. Gates was when he knocked on the door. It’s possible. But how many African Americans live in that prestige-heavy neighborhood? Under the circumstances, asking for the identification of the man he found inside the house was very reasonable. The professor did not think so, and the sparks flew all over the place. Under the media shower, both the state’s first black governor and the local Superior Officers Association came down with opposing views.


To blow the matter up further, Barack Obama wound up inviting both parties to have a beer in the White House. They were joined by Vice President Joseph Biden. Reports could not have been more detailed. We know what individual brands they drank. We know where they were seated. Too much, already. Blame the highly renowned professor for the Pennsylvania Avenue invitation and the president’s comment.


In this situation, celebrity eventually trumped authority. The murky quotes from that invitation-only confab proved nothing. It was not an insight into racial relations. They remain uncertain. No matter what they claim, cops will continue to “profile” blacks, and African American leaders will go on protesting.


Meanwhile, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and James Crowley will return to their respective milieu and cheering comrades who think each protagonist was absolutely right. From here, the incident exacerbated a situation where most police show restraint and dignity on duty; and most blacks are law abiding, responsible citizens – no matter what they think of each other.

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