Sunday, August 02, 2009

Henry Louis Gates and the Most Disliked Athletes

Since we started saying President Obama, there’s been widespread sentiment that “race” as issue in American may be in our cultural rear window. For instance, a number of my progressive friends supported the firemen in the New Haven firefighter’s case, Ricci v. De Stefano simply because they supported the virtually inarguable position that at some point America needs to be a country where decisions are based on merit and not skin color. As a number of folk have pointed out, President Obama has had virtually perfect pitch on racial matters. Not many people folk noticed that his administration backed the fire department in the New Haven case on the little understood basis of an increasingly obscure notion in 14th amendment law, disparate impact.

A couple weeks ago, the media heated up over yet another cultural moment, Henry Louis Gates-gate. I’ve looked over the police report and my read was that Professor Gates overreacted. That said, it’s also true that a well-dressed 59 year old man trying to open a door in the middle of the afternoon with a pair of suitcases right next to him probably wouldn’t be enough of an incident to call 911 had the 59 year old man been a white or Asian Harvard professor. A lot of passerbys might have walked up to them and said something like “Is there a problem here?”

In fact, twenty plus years ago I was on the upper east side of Manhattan with my girlfriend one afternoon when we saw a young black man hacksawing a U-lock that held an expensive bicycle frame to a parking meter. Yes, our first reaction was that he might be stealing the bicycle, though it did seem like a peculiar thing to do in the middle of the day on a very busy street. Instead, the two of us decided to stand about eight feet away and watch him or let him know that we were watching before we did anything else.
After a couple minutes, the young man said calmly and politely “Yes, it is my bicycle.”

It was an embarrassing moment for us, because would we have suspected him of anything had he not been black? Well, arguably yeah! Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask anyone with a hacksaw something like “This is your bicycle right?”

So with Henry Louis Gates, Officer Crowley is thinking if I got a 911 call about a man breaking into a house I’d ask anyone for his ID. Henry Louis Gates is thinking I’m Professor Gates god dammit, I teach at Harvard, this is Cambridge, I should be treated accordingly not like some potential burglar especially when this happens to be my own home. I imagine Officer Crowley could have determined easily enough that Henry Louis Gates lived at the address in question without an ID. Unfortunately, the rest is literally history.

The African-American president with the perfect pitch on race matter decided to stand up for America’s most famous black academic, one who endorsed Hillary Clinton no less. Unfortunately, he did so before he had all the facts. Similarly, Deval Patrick, the African-American governor of Massachussetts also jumped in to defend Professor Gates. Suddenly, it was arguably three of the most powerful African-American men going vs. some white Cambridge police officer who by virtually all accounts was just following procedure.

The moment breaks in the news as yet another example of how the race pendulum has swung too far and once again it takes the form of a well-connected black man vs. either police or firemen. For once, our ultra-cool President didn’t do the “cool thing”, he spoke too soon and it hurt him. While it was smart politics, I don’t know that the beer summit helped that much. The point to many Americans is that this well-connected black man was screaming “racism” when no one hit him, called him names, and bottom line the officer was actually just helping Henry Louis Gates protect his own property. The last time the public remembers the race card getting played like this, it was OJ.

To some, Gates-gate is supposed to be the cultural moment that puts an end to the race card, just like the New Haven firefighters case spells the end of affirmative action. The mantra is “See, we’re so far beyond that now. Black President, black governor, black Harvard professor. All within a lifetime of Emitt Till. Need I point out that all the people accused of bilking money for Emitt Till’s coffin were African-American?”

So, even I’m more or less down with that, but the same day as the White House beer summit, was it dark beer or light? I happen to seem the following seemingly unrelated story, a list of the most disliked athletes in America. Here are the top ten,

1. Michael Vick quarterback and dog abuser
2. Manny Ramirez slugger and performance-enhancing drug abuser
3. Alex Rodriguez slugger and performance-enhancing drug abuser and adulterer
4. Terrell Owens wide receiver and quarterback abuser
5. Kobe Bryant shooting guard and one-time accused rapist
6. Alan Iverson point guard with lots of tattoos who doesn’t come to practice
7. Isaiah Thomas basketball coach, sexual harasser, and really bad GM
8. Stephon Marbury point guard with a bad attitude
9. Nick Saban football coach with a big contract
10. John Mcenroe tennis player with a temper who last mattered about 25 years ago.

What’s the first thing I noticed about the Forbes list? How about the fact that the first eight names are all black and the only two white guys on the list arguably aren’t athletes at this point.
Kobe Bryant was acquitted btw. Does anyone even know that Ben Roethlisberger was recently accused of rape (he may well be innocent, but then so was Kobe). What’s your bet that the Steelers quarterback made the top 50 on that list? How about Roger Clemens who threw his wife under the bus by saying the HGH was hers? How about the hockey player who put a hit on someone? Or the various NASCAR drivers who have either gotten caught cheating (somehow that’s just part of the sport as opposed to steroids) or literally doing speed?

I’m not defending Michael Vick. I’m just wondering why the list of most disliked sports figures is so black in a time when we’ve allegedly gotten so far past race.

Let me mention the reason why President Obama and Governor Patrick might have been so quick to speak up on behalf of Professor Gates. I don’t know a single adult black male who hasn’t been stopped by the police in completely innocent circumstances. No, that’s not what happened to Henry Louis Gates that afternoon, but don’t let that convince you that it doesn’t happen anymore.

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At 8/08/2009 11:29:00 PM, Blogger Marianne said...

I do really agree with you on your main points.

Here's a personal story:

When my son was a senior at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, he liked biking to school from our home in RWC. One day, he was stopped by an Atherton cop. My son was wearing a T-shirt that said "Sacred Heart Prep." He was biking through Atherton in broad daylight. The policeman asked my son if those were indeed his clothes he was wearing. Why??? My husband had to call the Atherton police department to complain, and he got a letter in response saying they meant no disrespect, blah blah blah.

At 8/10/2009 03:18:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Sorry that happened to your son.

As I said, virtually any male who isn't white has some story where he had something similar happen.


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