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July 22nd, 2009 at 11:07 am

Houston Baker on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates

Houston BakerThe following post is by Houston Baker, Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of many books, most recently Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era.

The surreal arrest of Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. in Cambridge, MA, this week highlights as well as any bizarre event might that we are not citizens of a “post-racial” America.

There is, to be sure, President Barack Obama and his family. But, there is only one Obama family, and the police live with them. The rest of us who are black (and especially black and male) are simply, in the vernacular of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “running men” with eyes necessarily in the back of our heads and that heart throbbing and humorous plea: “feet don’t fail me now.”

Seeing the sweetly dressed Cambridge Police Department spokeswoman on television yesterday reminded me how much the police state has altered its image way beyond the flat-out brutalism of the L.A., Philadelphia, and Chicago models of old. I mean Frank Rizzo just said to those Black Panthers something on the order of “[N word] drop your pants and grab the wall!” The Cambridge spokeswoman said something on the order of: “It was not the department’s finest hour, nor was it Professor Gates’ finest hour.” Darn tooting it was not the Professor’s finest hour, being ousted from his own home after showing his Harvard University ID and enough outrage to suggest that it was, indeed, his home. And handcuffs and mug shots and hours in detention?

Ironically, no black public intellectual in the US has been more complicit in publicizing the myth of “post racialism” as an American reality than Professor Gates. The police spokeswoman from Cambridge said something like: “It is our position that the incident had nothing to do with race.” All I could hear were whisper tones of QVC: “And when you all buy into the Gates/Cambridge ‘race had nothing to do with it,’ we have some fine swamp land in Florida at a great discount. Or, maybe you’d like a bridge?” Remember Malcolm’s question: “Do you know what they call a Negro Ph.D.?” Malcolm’s answer: “The N Word!”

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