Skip Gates, Please Sit Down

Phantom Negro, Salon.com, July 24, 2009

The Ivy League is not real life. {snip} 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. Sure, we get pissed, knowing we’re getting hassled because we’re black, but the real indignation comes from being hassled as members of an elite group. How dare you hassle me? I go to school here. I go to work here. That second part of the thought is always present. {snip} When the Ivy League Effect is going full tilt, our black compass gets confused; the realities we know to exist become other people’s problems.

{snip}

{snip} All the lessons about dealing with police as a black person seem to have no place in the ivory tower. We can forget those lessons because, more than we’re black in America, we’re Ivy Leaguers.

Which brings me to Skip Gates. He isn’t outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police (that dubious honor goes to his foolish neighbor) [in fact, the woman who called the police is not a neighbor, but works nearby]. He’s outraged because he was the victim of class profiling. He didn’t resent being identified as black; he resented being identified as that kind of black, the kind of black that can be hassled and pushed around by simpleton cops. How dare you hassle me? I’m Skip Gates: Harvard professor!

Skip has fallen victim to the Ivy League Effect. Check out his articles. . . . {snip} He all but says, “Do I look like that type of (black) person? I was wearing a blazer and a polo shirt!” Gates is Ivy League pissed with a dash of black anger. Not the other way around. {snip}

But I’m also sure the good doctor was talking some shit. 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.” {snip}

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.

{snip} 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.

So before we heed the call of racism, let’s be mindful of the tower from which that call came. This has something to do with race. But it has a lot more to do with messing with Skip Gates.

{snip}

[Salon editor’s Note: This column originally appeared on the Web site “This Week in Blackness,” which is maintained by Brooklyn, N.Y., comedian Elon James White. The person who submitted it to “This Week in Blackness” published it under the pseudonym “a Phantom Negro” because “Dr. Henry Louis Gates has reach and influence in the academy.”]

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