Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates' teachable moment is déjà vu

By DeWayne Wickham

Now that both President Obama and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have proclaimed Gates' run-in with a Cambridge, Mass., cop a teachable moment, what are the lessons to be learned?

Gates, one of the nation's most distinguished black academics, said what happened to him "should be a profound teaching moment in the history of race relations in America." A day earlier, Obama walked into the White House press room and backpedaled on his assertion that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates while investigating a possible break-in at his house.

According to the police report, Gates loudly berated Sgt. James Crowley, the white officer who responded to a possible break-in at Gates' house. "Why, because I'm a black man in America," Crowley says Gates replied when the officer said he was investigating a crime and asked Gates to come outside. After Crowley determined that Gates was in his house legally he again asked the irate professor to step outside.

So here's the teachable moment that tops my list. It's hard for a cop to accuse you of disorderly conduct for mouthing off inside your own home. But if he invites you outside where a crowd has gathered, don't go because he may be trying to get you to a place where he can make that charge stick.

This doesn't make Crowley a racist; but it does suggest Gates got under Crowley's skin - and the cop decided to get even

Another thing to learn is that Gates is not alone. It's not just the clashes cops have with poor blacks that raise the specter of racial bias.

Linda Jones, a former Detroit News reporter, was stopped by two DEA agents in 1989 at the Birmingham, Ala., airport. She was covering a group of Michigan schoolchildren visiting civil rights landmarks in the South when she got a toothache and decided to fly home for treatment. Jones says the agents stopped her in the middle of the airport concourse and rifled through her bags. When they found no drugs they walked off, leaving Jones' belongings in disarray and her nerves badly frayed.

Howard Bingham, Muhammad Ali's personal photographer since 1962, was stopped by a Manhattan Beach, Calif., police officer shortly after leaving a fundraiser for then-President Bill Clinton in 1999. The cop said Bingham's car was swerving. The photographer wasn't drunk, but the officer arrested him for driving with an expired license, an offense that California law says no one over 16 should be arrested or detained.

The cop later said he took Bingham into custody because he suspected he might be Andre Bingham, a man for whom there was a 22-year-old arrest warrant. Bingham says he was arrested even after showing the officer a copy of a 1998 Sports Illustrated. Bingham and Ali were on the cover along with these words: "Who's That Guy with Howard Bingham? You don't know Muhammad Ali until you know his best friend."

And then there's the case of Donna Brazile, the black woman who was Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 presidential race. In March of that year she was stopped in a hotel stairwell by Los Angeles police while on her way to help brief the vice president for a debate. Despite wearing her campaign badge and Secret Service ID pin, Brazile was detained for an hour who didn’t believe a black woman had such a job. She watched as Gore's motorcade left for the debate without her.

The lesson to be learned from all of this is that Obama and Gates have an awful lot of teaching to do.

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