Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on BIYHWB (Being In Your Home While Black)

The year is 1963, in St. Augustine, Florida, days after the September 15th church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four innocent girls. Intending to challenge the Klan's views, four black men attend a Klan rally. They don't get very far. While in the parking lot, deciding what to do, a car comes behind them. A man steps out, shotgun in hand, and apprehends them. The man proceeds to march them off to the rally, where they are beaten with fists, chains and various assortments of clubs. The wounds send the men to the hospital.

Ask me how this story relates to the recent arrest of Distinguished Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates while inside his home.

I'll tell you.

Go back to the Klan rally. Sheriff's deputies finally arrived at the scene, yet rather than see a beating, they saw a "fight between Negroes and Klansmen." The four black men were prosecuted by local authorities, as were four Klansmen. The charges against the Klansmen were dropped in due time. The jury convicted the leader of the four black men, Robert Hayling, of criminal assault. Yet, in the absence of injuries to the Klansmen, and the many wounds on Mr. Hayling, the judge limited his punishment to a mere $100 fine.

Now, try to make sense of the Gates arrest.

A neighbor calls 911 and reports a break-in by two black males with backpacks in the Gates home. Once the police arrive at the scene, Gates is already inside his home. According to the police account, the officer at the scene asks Professor Gates to step outside, yet he refuses. Professor Gates produces identification to show that he in fact lives in the home and is the person he claims to be. According to the arresting officer, Professor Gates turned belligerent and began yelling. He was subsequently arrested.

Professor Gates disputes this account, of course.

Whichever side you believe, this story is a chilling reminder of the challenges posed by race in this country.

And I must wonder: can you even begin to wrap your mind around the fact that a distinguished Harvard professor who happens to be black was arrested in his own home for talking back to the police?

Are you kidding me?

This would be unbelievable if it weren't such a commonplace aspect of the lived experiences of persons of color. Or as Randall Kennedy said after the incident came to light, "[t]his is really, truly remarkable. But it would be wrong to say that this is sort of completely out of left field. The facts are so striking here. It is part of a pattern that is well-known. It will resonate with lots of black people, especially black men, who have experienced something similar."

This is what our post-racial America is supposed to look like?

I wonder if our Oracles of Delphi are paying attention, and if so, what their reactions would be.