The last time I was hurt by an anti-Jewish comment, I was 13-years-old and attending Boy Scout Camp. I've experienced occasional anti-Semitic comments since then, but they didn't much get into me. This one did. The epitaphs were hurled at me by my counselor, in front of about a dozen other Scouts.He was someone who was supposed to teach and inspire me, someone I was supposed to trust.
It happened 51 years ago, but I remember the scene as if it were yesterday. It no longer hurts and enrages as it it once did, but I still see the incident with indelible clarity. If there is one experience that enlightened me to how racism and prejudice works, it was that moment in 1958.
Being Jewish subjects me to a lot less than I would face if I had been born black. I look, sound and dress like a great many American white Christians. The last 50 years of immigration by people who do not look so "acceptable," to the exclusions my parents--two European Jewish immigrants, experienced in an earlier America. Bashing has turned away from us and toward blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs; ostensibly gay people, the ragged, the physically deformed and other people who look, well diffferent than some Americans think Americans should look like.
I'm not talking about the overt hatred of cults in white hoods. I'm talking about everyday slights invoked by everyday people, most of whom will insist they don't have a prejudicial bone in their body; eople who are above all that because they voted for Barack Obama.
It is important to consider that you do not have to be a racist to make a racial assumptions. You don't have to be mean spirited when you make a comment that hurts someone along racial or ethnic lines. You don't have to hate black people to be nervous when you see a couple of black people wearing gang colors on an isolated street.
Humans have a natural tendency to trust people who look and feel like ourselves and to mistrust any group of "others." The more "others" there are the more nervous we get. Some would have us build walls at our borders to keep "others" out.
Take a look at the guy wearing handcuffs in the above picture. He's Prof. Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard scholar, personal friend of the President of the United States, a 58-year-old black man who needs a cane to assist his walking. How many moments of his life are filled with Boy Scout Camp memories. How many times in his life was he hurt or excluded for no other reason than his blackness? Some of his Boy Scout camp memories are old, some more recent. One occurred last week. It occurred when he was tired and grateful to be in the comfort and privacy of his own home.
Professor Gates flew home from China, a long, long flight to Boston. He met a limo driver, who probably by coincidence was also black. They drove about 30 minutes to the scholar's home in Cambridge and after all this travel and time, after customs and bag checks and airports and Memorial Drive traffic, the damned front door was stuck. Gates went around, got in through the back and still could not unstick the door. He came back, shouldered the front door and got in.
A neighbor watched all this. She did not see her neighbor, the Harvard professor and a Town Car driver. She saw two black men breaking into a house in her neighborhood and she called the police.
By the time, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrived on the scene, the driver was gone and Prof. Gates was finally at home. I would assume Gates would be irritated by any uninvited person rapping on his front door at that moment and at that time.A cop who thought he might be a burglar would be high on the list of possible irritations.
By all accounts, Gates showed ID that he lived in the house where he was found. It is generally perceived that at this point he behaved in a way that Sgt. Crowley found offensive. Gates was ordered outside his own home and got louder. Crowley hand-cuffed him and charged him--not with attempted burglary but with unruly conduct.
I have read multiple accounts of this incident. In every case, I get to this point and wonder: Why didn't Crowley just say, "sorry, I was just doing my job, shake Gates' hand and be on his way?"
For those who argue that Gates was the offending party; that he should have just done what he was told; that we don't have the right in the United States to talk back to a police officer who is giving us a tough time when we are not breaking any laws, I disagree.
America to me, is not a place where people are supposed to be ordered out of their homes, handcuffed and dragged to a police station where they get finger printed, mug shots taken and perhaps placed in holding cells.
Take race out of this. Let this be you. How would you have responded if you were in Gates position? Once the cop knew you belonged in the house, would you not expect him to just go away?
Now, add color to this incident. Try to imagine the number of Boy Scout Camp memories flooded into Prof. Gates mind when Officer Crowley ordered him to step outside even after the recognizing that Gates was no burglar.
Should Gates have been more obsequious? Well, of course he should have. It would have saved him and his friend Barack Obama a good deal of angst and embarrassment. Obama's "stupidity" quote was obviously the unwisest utterance of both his campaign and his tenure so far. It will be used against him in the coming months and for a long time to come.
But to me, it is an accurate--if inappropriate-- statement and one that popped out because he too has a life filled with great successes interspersed by Boy Scout camp moments. It seems to me that Obama's was a very human gaffe. As a supporter, I regret the moment; as an admirer, it confirms to me that our buttoned-down, president remains a very human guy, who can relate to how his friend felt.
I need to emphasize that a creditable case has been made that Sgt. Crowley is no racist. He has lead departmental Affirmative Action trainings. Black police officers vouch for him. This is all may be true, but that does not stop the incident from having deeply racial overtones. As Prof. Gates has said "Race is part of my portfolio." You cannot review this incident with adding color to the nuance.
On Twitter several people have posted that they've examined the facts and conclude this was not a racial incident. I cannot help but notice that every one of these posts came from white men. I've suggested several times such posters go ask a black person if he or she considers the incident to be racist. If they do not know a black person, pick a Muslem or Hindu. If they do not have any minority members to ask, perhaps they should examine themselves and how qualified they are to judge this incident.
Blatant Ku Klux Klan type behavior may be a thing of the past. Most people seem to think that now that we have a black president, we Americans are past are centuries long history of racial discrimination. We are not. Even good people make racial, ethnic and appearance assumptions.Somewhere today, a black or Muslim or Sikh child will feel what I felt long ago in Boy Scout camp.
Even the best of us harbor some stereotyping moments. One of them happened last week on a quiet sde street in Cambridge, Massachuesetts.