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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cop who arrested Gates was cunning, not stupid

By DeWayne Wickham

It was the last question asked during President Barack Obama’s prime-time press conference Wednesday night that produced a headline-stealing answer. Until then, the evening was dominated by mind-numbing talk of the national health care legislation Obama wants Congress to enact.

Then, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet asked a question — about the July 16 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama’s friend and a renowned black scholar — that caused the usually cautious president to speak more from heart than his head.
“What does that incident say to you, and what does it say about race relations in America?” Sweet asked.

The white Cambridge, Mass., cop who jailed Gates “acted stupidly,” Obama said in a moment of muffled outrage.

Given his closeness to Gates, Obama’s characterization is understandable. But it wasn’t stupidity that caused the white officer to arrest Gates. The officer didn’t simply bungle an investigation of a reported break-in. He arrested Gates, I’m convinced, to put an uppity black man in his place.

Think about it. The police sergeant showed up at Gates’ front door after a white woman called 911 to report two black men trying to break into that residence. Those men were Gates, who had just returned from an overseas trip, and a car service driver, who was trying to help the professor open his jammed front door.

Gates eventually used a key to enter his university-supplied home through a rear door. According to his attorney, Gates was on the phone trying to get someone to repair the front door when the cop confronted him and asked for identification. Gates gave the officer his driver’s license and a Harvard photo ID, but not before asking the officer for proof of his identity.

He demanded the officer’s name and badge number. The cop said he gave that information to the professor. Gates said he didn’t.

At some point, Gates made a second call in an apparent attempt to talk to the Cambridge police chief. According to the police report, he was overheard asking someone to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?” The cop also said Gates yelled at him and accused him of being a racist.

Then came the cunning part.

At some point, the officer asked Gates to follow him outside. When the professor stepped out onto his porch, he was handcuffed and hauled off to jail.

The cop should have left Gates’ house after the professor proved he lived there, but he didn’t. Instead he hung around and eventually lured Gates outside. Inside the house, Gates’ loud talk crossed no legal threshold. But when the professor continued to behave that way outside, the cop knew the scales of justice had tilted in his favor.

“Gates continued to yell at me” outside his house, the cop wrote in his report. It was Gates’ “tumultuous manner” that got him arrested, the officer wrote. Gates, who heads the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, was charged with disorderly conduct.

The charge was dropped the day before Obama’s press conference, but the specter of racism it raised won’t go away so quickly. Racial profiling, Obama said in response to Sweet’s question, “still haunts us.” What’s even more troubling in this so-called “post-racial era” is that this incident brings to mind something Malcolm X said over 40 years ago about race relations in America.

What do “they” call a black man with a PhD? Malcolm X asked during a debate with a black professor. Without waiting for a response, he answered his own question: “A nigger.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blacks should question Obama, too

By DeWayne Wickham

BALTIMORE - At Leroy Geddis' barbershop, a favorite gathering place in this city for people who like to debate the things politicians do and say, not much has been said about President Obama's speech to the NAACP.

"The big story here has been the death of Michael Jackson, not what Obama said to the NAACP," Geddis told me.

Two days earlier Obama gave a speech at the NAACP's 100th anniversary convention in New York City that caused some people in the media to wonder how blacks might react. "We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes - because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little ... from themselves," Obama, the nation's first black president, said in that address.

One thing is clear: Many of Geddis' customers don't want to hear anything negative about this president. "Every day I try to get into it hard about Obama, but it usually ends with someone saying I should stop raising questions because he's doing as much for us as white folks will let him do," said Geddis.

That doesn't surprise me.

Geddis' 19-year-old business, "York Road Barber," is located along a gritty stretch where nothing has changed in the six months since Obama entered the White House. The sprinkling of black merchants still struggle to survive in a neighborhood hard hit by unemployment, drug addiction and the ravages of single parenthood - just as when George W. Bush was president.

But like many other blacks, most of Geddis' customers believe Obama eventually will do something to make their lives better, even though he told his NAACP audience they must be masters of their own fate. "Your destiny is in your hands - you cannot forget that," he said.

Still, few who debate the impact of things that are largely beyond their control - steady work, quality schools and safe streets - want to blame Obama in the same way that they blamed Bush for government's failure to help them.

I don't think Obama should get a free pass. Obama is right to say that blacks who are born into poverty and live in crime-infested neighborhoods should work hard to escape those conditions. But he should also be just as forceful in acknowledging government's responsibility to help lift poor people out of poverty and make their streets safer.

And Obama's right to suggest that activists groups such as the NAACP can do more to help improve the lives of blacks. In 2007, the NAACP helped to get nearly 20,000 people to march in protest of the arrest of six black teenagers in Jena, La., after a simmering dispute with some white teens. That same year the FBI reported that blacks were being murdered by other blacks at an alarming rate. But no mass protest march was called by the NAACP or other black activists to decry this violence, which took a far greater toll on blacks than the Jena Six.

Blacks have a right to expect special attention from Obama. Not because he is black, but because their jobless rate is 1 1/2 times that of whites; black students lag behind whites in math and reading test scores, and because disparate health care leaves blacks "more likely to suffer from a host of diseases," as Obama told the NAACP.

Maybe Obama is doing as much as he can to fix these problems. Maybe not. This is the conversation that blacks need to have - before it's too late.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Israel can't attack Iran without U.S. approval

By DeWayne Wickham

You've got to wonder how the Obama administration will respond if sometime soon Iraq's air defense forces see Israeli jets streaking across the sky toward Iran.

That scenario didn't come up as the Obama administration struggled to clarify its position on a potential Israeli attack on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to preemptively attack sites where Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons.

During a recent appearance on ABC's "This Week," Vice President Joe Biden seemed to say the administration wouldn't stand in the way of an Israeli attack.

"Look, Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said.
Two days later, President Obama issued a clarification - of sorts - while attending a summit in Moscow he hoped would patch up relations with Russia. His administration has "absolutely not" given Israel a green light to attack Iran, he said.

"I think Vice President Biden stated a categorical fact, which is we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are," Obama told CNN. " What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels."

But that falls short of answering a critical question: How will the U.S. respond if Israel bombs Iran's nuclear facilities? Israeli planes would almost certainly have to cross Iraqi territory to get to Iran - and Iraq's airspace is effectively controlled by U.S. military aircraft.

If Israeli planes do penetrate Iraqi airspace, will U.S. military commanders order them to turn back? Will American fighters be scrambled to intercept them? Will we shoot them down, or will we allow them to continue on to their Iranian targets?

Biden's "categorical fact" comes with a great big caveat. The U.S. remains the army of occupation in Iraq and can deny Israel access to that country's airspace - or it can give Israeli planes safe passage to their Iranian targets.
Either way, this country's continuing role in Iraq puts our military squarely between Iran and invading Israeli jets. While the president is right to say the U.S. can't dictate other countries' security interests, he's wrong to suggest America can't keep Israel from attacking Iran.

Understandably, the U.S. and Israel - and most countries in the Middle East - don't want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Iran's leaders are fanatically obsessed with destroying Israel. And given Iran's longstanding riff with the U.S., it's not unreasonable to think it might allow nuclear materials to end up in the hands of al-Qaida or some other terrorist group.

Obama says he's committed to resolving this matter through diplomacy. If that works, and I hope it does, fine. If it doesn't, if Iran plays the game of brinkmanship too long, then it may invite a massive Israeli air strike on its nuclear facilities.

But those planes won't get to Iran without the approval of the Obama administration.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jackson was Beethoven, Dickens and Astaire of his era

By DeWayne Wickham

It was a prophetic beginning to a tragic end.

During a brief appearance at London's O2 arena in March to announce his return to the stage after a 12-year absence, Michael Jackson told a crowd of screaming admirers that the 50-concert tour he announced that day would be his last. "This is the final curtain call," he said.

That curtain fell prematurely on June 25, just hours after a late-night rehearsal of the highly anticipated concert in Los Angeles' Staples Center, when Jackson was rushed to a hospital in full cardiac arrest. The King of Pop was pronounced dead 18 days before his "This is It" concert was scheduled to open in London.

Jackson's life and musical genius will be celebrated today at the Staples Center, with a program that's expected to be viewed worldwide by hundreds of millions of grieving fans of the 50-year-old pop music icon who spent nearly all of his life in the public spotlight.

Much will be said, no doubt, about the Jackson 5, the family group for which a young Michael Jackson was the charismatic lead singer. There also will be talk about the solo career that lifted Jackson to the outer stratosphere of fame and fortune. People will talk about his love of children and family and his big heart. The program will be laced with prayerful words and musical praise.

Then when it's all over, when the Staples Center empties out and the doting TV viewers turn their attention elsewhere, the cops, lawyers and prosecutors will take center stage. Michael-mania will be replaced by the chilling finger-pointing search for someone to blame for Jackson's early death and the infighting over what he leaves behind.

I'd like to understand the Michael Jackson most of us never got to know, the man-child who sang so hauntingly of lost adolescence in Childhood. In that 1995 song, which was released a year after he settled a child abuse civil suit, he asked sadly, "Have you seen my childhood?"

I'd like to know what Jackson saw when he looked into a mirror, a question born of his 1988 hit, Man in The Mirror. To make the world a better place, "take a look at yourself, and then make a change," he sang. I wonder what problems he saw when he looked into a mirror. Was it a reflection of his troubled childhood? And if so, what did he do about it?

If megastars like Jackson have a troubled past, they don't have the same opportunities to work through their troubles as people who are not constantly in the spotlight, Kendra Ogletree Cusaac, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, told me.
"The stage becomes their outlet. But offstage they look in a mirror and see someone they are unhappy with," said Ogletree Cusaac, who also teaches at the University of South Carolina. Too often, people around megastars like Jackson hear their requests for drugs, but not the pain behind those pleadings, she said.

While a pending toxicology report will tell us what, if any, role drugs had in Jackson's death, I, like many of the people at his memorial service, am more interested in celebrating his life than discovering what triggered his cardiac arrest.

What's important to know about Michael Jackson is that he was the Ludwig van Beethoven of pop music, the Charles Dickens of musical storytellers and the Fred Astaire of his generation.

Every era has its legends. But the world of music has never produced one bigger than Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jackson deserves praise, not ridicule and scorn

By DeWayne Wickham

Death will not be the final act of Michael Jackson's tragic life.

In the wake of the King of Pop's untimely demise, a familiar drama has begun to unfold. His grieving relatives demand to know the grim details of Jackson's final hours. The man who can provide the answers remains hidden behind his lawyer.

Though the doctor, Conrad Murray, said through his attorney that Jackson "was still warm and had a pulse" but "wasn't breathing" when he found the singer in bed, an aura of deception and mystery still surrounds his death. And the media-circus coverage of his passing threatens to obscure the great contributions Jackson made to the life of this nation.

Already too much has been said about the child abuse charges he endured — and not enough about how this pop music icon bridged Americans' great racial divide at a time when it was still a yawning gap. Too little attention has been given to his financial success, while too much has been said about his unchecked spending.

Before Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama "transcended" race to become simply American icons, Jackson made that great leap with his music. His 1982 Thriller album and video mark the dividing line between the era of American race music and the multiracial musical genre that followed.

And unlike many other blacks who find acceptance on both sides of this chasm, Jackson never shied away from talking about race. Jackson very consciously made it part of his music, as with his 1991 recordings of Black or White and Heal the World.

But as he used his musical gift to knock down racial barriers, Jackson was taunted by some who accused him of hating his own blackness. They pointed to his changing skin color as proof of this self-loathing. Even though Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 1993 that this change was the result of vitiligo, a disorder that robs the skin of its pigment, coverage of his death continues to be bogged down with talk of his change from black to white.

Apparently, it's easier for many people chronicling Jackson's life to treat him as a freak of nature than to see him as the smart financial operative who in 1985 paid $47.5 million to purchase the copyright of the Beatles' music collection and hundreds of other songs. A decade later, Jackson merged that music catalog with Sony's in a deal that netted him $95 million. The joint venture is now estimated to be worth a billion dollars — an amount that far exceeds the debt he supposedly has left behind.

That's the kind of financial success that escaped many black singers of the era that spawned Jackson. But if you listen to much of the reporting on his death, you'd think he died broke.

Far from a tragic figure, Jackson was — as the Rev. Jesse Jackson described him to me over the weekend — "a world-changing cultural force." While complicated by unproved accusations of child abuse and breathless, tabloid-style reports of eccentric living, Jackson's life deserves a better ending. It should be celebrated, not debased.

What he did for this nation — and the world — ought to dominate the reporting of his tragic end, not the question of a possible drug-induced death.

Of course, the way he died is a matter of some importance. But the contributions Jackson made to this society are of much greater historical significance. Making sure that people — regardless whether they are black or white — understand this would be a fitting epilogue to his short life.