Why class does matter in the Gates arrest debate
In my prior posts on the arrest of Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates in his own home by Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley I have mentioned that class privilege plays a role in this debacle as much as race does. A lot of the debate about the incident dances around the topic but misses the big picture — race and class are always factors because we are human beings colored by experiences and classification within this country’s historical framework of those two elements.
I’ve seen hundreds of comments around the blogosphere getting bogged down in wish list items — “if Gates had only been more polite” or “if the cop had only walked out once he saw the ID and knew it was Gates’s home.” Yes, either might have defused the situation, then again, maybe not. Yes, the cop was being yelled at by Gates, but it’s less the yelling, than one specific thing that he said that hit the red alert button on class — he tossed down the “don’t you know who I am” card (“you have no idea who you are messing with“). That, friends, comes from privilege of a different kind, one that has nothing to do with race.
On Salon, I was relieved to see this given an apt name for this particular use of the power play, “Ivy League Effect,” by “Phantom Negro.” The reason for the pseudonym was obvious to me. As a fellow Ivy League prof, “Phantom Negro” knows Gates has the power to make live miserable for him/her (“Dr. Henry Louis Gates has reach and influence in the academy“).
The Ivy League is not real life. College in general is not real life, and the Ivy League is a more fantastic version of college. The amenities are better, the rules are flexible, and everyone, student and faculty alike, is well aware that the realities of life as most people know it are merely a peculiar footnote to the day-to-day of campus life. I do not speak out of turn when I say this. I know because I am in and of that world.
As a black Ivy Leaguer, something funny happens as you become ensconced in ivy. You’re smart enough to understand that race and racism are a reality you deal with on a daily basis, but you also know that your university ID sets you apart. Does this mean you are kept from hurtful incidents? No, but it is to say that much of the outrage felt at a racial slight is replaced by outrage at a class slight.
It’s a closed, strange universe that I have experience with as well — though I’ve been a lowly peon in that universe. Plus, my brother is a tenured professor who, thankfully, has somehow managed to stay down-to-earth and his feet firmly planted in the ground. I’ve always told him that if he starts exhibiting signs of what I called “acadamic bastard fever”, a sisterly ass-kicking would be in order. But I’ve seen the wrath of the Ivy League/Celebrity Effect before, and it’s a breathtaking level of ego rage, sense of entitlement and coddling that is mind-boggling. Even if you’re in a college town, some of these characters fail to realize that no, not everyone in town “knows who you are” and, well, they don’t really give a damn, either.
Much more below the fold. It looks like the Ive League Effect may have made Skip Gates think you a black pass if you become famous, wealthy or well-respected in your field. It doesn’t always work that way.
The Ivy League Effect, when it’s potent, wouldn’t allow otherwise. It made Gates forget that, no matter what, even when you’re right, you don’t talk shit to the police. And that’s not a matter of manhood or pride; it’s a question of survival. Why? Because you’re black before you’re a Harvard professor. Because, in an extreme case, you can’t tell your side of the story if you get shot reaching for your ID. As a black man and a Harvard professor, Gates’ thought process should have been: “Wow. I am so thoroughly pissed right now. When this current situation is resolved and I am out of harm’s way, I’m going down to the station and I’m going to use my considerable influence to make heads roll. But right now, I need to be the smart one, remember all the details and not give him any reason to escalate this situation.” That’s what many of my colleagues have done, guns drawn on them at night in the middle of campus by the police. They didn’t get loud; they got smart. They defused the situation, then got pissed and did something about it. And, I assure you, they did so with much less juice than Dr. Gates.
I remember when I heard about the story, I couldn’t help thinking: Wow, that Ivy League Effect has washed out his healthy fear of the police. Yikes.
Now before you say “Gates was in the right to say anything to anyone in his own home” (particularly when the cop is the one escalating the issue by continuing to stand there in the house after Gates had fulfilled the request to produce ID), let’s deal with the reality of being black in America in 2009, not in fantasy post-racial America that we want to see through rose-colored glasses. He should be able to say or do anything in his own home in relation to that incident. But to say there will never be (inexcuseable) consequences as a result in this country at this time, is serious denial.
I know my Mom always told my brother, when we were living in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn in the height of the crack-addled, crime-ridden 1980s, that you had to be careful dealing with the police because when they were called to a disturbance (if they showed up at all), even an innocent bystander, if he was a young black man, could experience getting a billy club beatdown –no questions asked –for just standing in the vicinity of the disturbance — or worse. A good slice of white folks don’t see the police as a potential threat, and that colors their perspective of interaction with law enforcement; if you grew up in an urban environment as a young black man, you definitely would have reservations about what would happen if the police showed up at your doorstep.
Phantom Negro is saying is that while Prof. Gates anger was justifiably angry because of the officer’s actions, the Ivy League Effect was in full force behind that anger.
Can he be outraged? Absolutely. The circumstance should outrage any person that happened to. But why is he outraged? Because he didn’t think the black tax applied to him anymore. In his mind, he was Skip Gates, well-regarded Harvard professor who was being treated poorly in his home by the police. Believe me, if this took place at North Carolina State his sense of indignation would be far different and his ability to garner attention would be much less. And if he was just a working-class stiff? Forget it.
But this didn’t happen anywhere else. It happened in Cambridge on Ivy turf and now his story has taken on Paul Bunyan-esque qualities. If you didn’t know better, you’d think a lynch mob was waiting outside Gates’ door with the rope and the hitching wagon before Ving Rhames came along and saved the day.
Skip Gates thought that he’d worked hard enough, achieved enough, become Harvard enough that this sort of treatment did not apply to him. And now, rather than channel that outrage in a way that is subtle but effective, he’s very publicly suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, having “joined the ranks of the million incarcerated black men in America.” That’s laughable. He does not see those million men as kin and he doesn’t, by and large, give a damn about those guys. He’s merely annoyed that such an irritation as police misconduct found its way into his home. If he read about this story happening to a plumber in Roxbury, he’d shake his head in disappointment and then go on with his life.
I don’t know if I could be that cold in assessing Gates as not capable of empathy (I did meet him, but I obviously don’t know the man on a personal level), but his public reaction has focused solely on race and not how class colors the incident as well. Framing of the story in that light makes for a less sympathetic figure; that does not, mind you, take away anything from the fact he was the one wrongfully abused by someone with a badge. But no one can say that the cascading media circus has no connection to his privileged role as an academic superstar in the Ivy League. He can and has used his station in society to blow this up to a national story. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right, I’m saying it is what it is.
Certainly white academics who have the Ivy Effect don’t have to deal with their class privilege getting trumped by race. The altered state of denial for academics of color is easily shattered when they realize they are just any old common black man in the eyes of the oppressor, in this case law enforcement. Reality check. It’s painfully apparent to me that many people don’t want to see the intersection of race and class in this story or just don’t want to talk about it. Really, it’s ok for this to be more complicated than, no pun intended, black and white. We already know that there is a serious problem with under-trained, hyper-aggressive members of law enforcement who use their badge and 50K volts to randomly terrorize citizens with little or no cause, and people of color are way disproportionately represented among the victims of brutes with a badge. Visit my Taser files. All I am saying is that a conversation about race alone won’t get to the bottom of the all the dynamics woven into throughout the incident, and that it was good to see this piece in Salon try to tackle the situation through another lens.
I am alternately amused and horrified by the “don’t you know who I am” nonsense in these insular pockets of society. I often wonder what that stems from — insecurity, being fawned over daily within their universes? It’s a strange form of narcissism I fail to grasp, and it bothers me because this arrogance usually means someone lower on the food chain than these people (usually assistants or working peons dealing with them) has to take a level of verbal abuse from these “important people” — particularly if they are tenured — that you would never see in “the real world.” It’s one thing for someone to recognize you and offer to buy you dinner or get you a good table at a restaurant, it’s another thing altogether to expect special treatment because of your “celebrity” or importance in your professional universe.
Take my grade Z celebrity status for example; I receive fan mail (and hate mail) regularly, I think one or two people asked for my worthless autograph. I am occasionally recognized in Durham, more so now because I write a column for a local paper, than for blogging. Some people have taken me for lunch or coffee/tea, etc.
However, when I go to blog-related conferences, it’s another matter — it seems so many people come up to say hi or thank me because they “know me” as the blogmistress of PHB, therefore my “celebrity quotient” skyrockets. That’s a closed, artificial microuniverse. I have the sense to know l am still the same person who is going to get back on the plane and go home to do laundry, get up and go to a regular day job where I am no treated no differently than anyone else and have mundane but important responsibilities of any other person in my office. I’m not going to walk into a local restaurant and bark orders at the waitstaff, or toss off the f-bomb at someone who “doesn’t know who I am” — it makes no freaking sense to me; it’s delusional.
It’s as if The Ivy/Celebrity Effect takes away any sense of self-reflection; people infected by this — receiving constant accolades, gifts and being stroked by syncophants — have lost their sense of place in the world at large. Imagine a room full of egos of that magnitude that at a conference or gala. Actually, I’d rather not.
* Cop in Gates case: I’m not racist – I gave mouth-to-mouth to black NBA player
* Prof. Henry Louis Gates tells CNN about his experience with Cambridge police
* Unjamming your front door while black? Scholar Henry Louis Gates arrested in home