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August 1, 2009
A distinguished Harvard colleague writes an open letter to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. published in the Harvard Crimson, about his behavior toward Sgt. Crowley. Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature, and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Harvard, and a very well-known figure. It raises issues that Gates really should address, and coming within the community, in the community's own forum, from a fellow holder of an endowed chair, it cannot really be ignored.
What puzzles me most in the report of your actions-or reactions-on July 16 is why you would have chosen, as I've heard you put it elsewhere, to "talk Black" to Officer Crowley instead of "talking White" as you so eloquently and regularly do? These are distinctions I've heard you expound-how educated African Americans switch their register of speech depending on what part of themselves they want to get across. Many of us do something similar inside and outside our particular communities, but you make it sound like a sport that is also for African Americans a tool of survival. So why didn't you address the policemen as fellow Cantabrigians? What was that "yo' mama" talk instead of saying simply, in the same register your interlocutor was using, "Look, officer, I'm sorry for your trouble. Thanks for checking on my house when you thought I was being burgled, but this is my home, and if you give me a minute, I'll find the piece of mail or license that proves it to you." It seems it wasn't the policeman doing the profiling, it was you. You played him for a racist cop and treated him disrespectfully. Had you truly feared bias, you would surely have behaved in a more controlled, rather than a less controlled, way. ....
Rather than taking offense at being racially profiled, weren't you instead insulted that someone as prominent as you was being subjected to a regular police routine? A Harvard professor and public figure-should you have to be treated like an ordinary citizen? But that's the greatness of this country: Enforcers of the law are expected to treat all alike, to protect the house of a black man no less carefully than that of white neighbors. ....
The ironies of progress can hardly be lost on you. When I came to Harvard in 1993, you had just published in the New York Times an op-ed urging black intellectuals to face up to their own racist attitudes. Invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., you wrote, "While anti-Semitism is generally on the wane in this country, it has been on the rise among black Americans. A recent survey finds not only that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold anti-Semitic views but-significantly-that it is among younger and more educated blacks that anti-Semitism is most pronounced." You argued then that owning up to such internal racism was the key to self-respect. Now that America has a black president, Massachusetts a black governor, and Cambridge a black mayor, you appear to have adopted the posture of racial victim. Are you trying to keep alive the politically potent appeal to liberal guilt?
It is one thing for Professor Gates to wear the mantle of race warrior in the national spotlight, but never forget that the man lives and works in (and desires the esteem of) a community, one which has a very powerful sense of itself as something quite special and deamnding of excellence. I lived within this very community for almost 20 years, and I can tell you that the thought that people around him might look at him with less respect will bother Gates a lot.
Following the experience of Sgt. Crowley thoughtfully attending to his needs, while his supposed friend Barack Obama moved on to other things, oblivious to Gates' trouble with the stairs, I have to wonder if the good professor might be rethinking one or two assumptions. It would not surprise me. We don't know what was said at the Beer Summit, but if Sgt. Crowley was as clear and articulate as he was in the presser afterward, he might actually have touched the heart of the proud professor.
Hat tip: Jack Kemp