"The good news about the Henry Louis Gates fiasco"Historians in the News
[James Hannaham is the author of the novel "God Says No" (McSweeney's, 2009) and a former staff writer at Salon. ]
When I heard that prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass., it made me proud of America. It may seem paradoxical to focus on the positive side of the preeminent scholar's public humiliation. This is, after all, a distinguished staff writer for the New Yorker, the man who helped Oprah find her roots. It may seem that there's no positive side at all. (His own neighbor, a Harvard magazine employee, didn't recognize him and called the cops. How pathetic is that?)
But last night I happened to be reading a book that put the whole incident into context, a volume that never fails to chill me: "We Charge Genocide," a petition brought before the U.N. in 1951 that makes a very convincing case for defining the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. as a genocide. This remarkable book consists, in part, of a litany of shocking bias crimes committed against black citizens across the country -- and only documented ones occurring between 1945 to 1950. A typical entry reads: "February 13 -- ISAAC WOODWARD, JR., discharged from the Army only a few hours, was on his way home when he had his eyes gouged out in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town chief of police, Linwood Shull ... [A]n all-white jury acquitted Shull after being out for 15 minutes." And so on, for 50-odd hair-raising pages. Believe me, Toni Morrison couldn’t top it.
So the Gates story makes me thankful that it’s not 1945 anymore, the year when, on Dec. 22, Cab Calloway was "slugged by a city policeman" in Kansas City and needed "eight stitches ... in his head." Hallelujah that the incident did not result in Mr. Gates' lynching, death and dismemberment (followed by a hefty fine), though the worst-case scenario of conflict between blacks and the police has followed this pattern too often in the past -- and still flares up, but not to the same degree, and blacks have considerably more recourse under the law. I’m reassured that the public, the police and the media no longer officially condone racial profiling and violence against people of color even if we still slip into the pattern, or echo it, from time to time. There is even some debate among letter writers on news sites about whether Gates-gate constitutes a case of profiling at all. In the past such bias would go without saying and never create a ripple, much less an outrage -- like the stories in "We Charge Genocide," which, if anything, only convinced the U.N. to define genocide in a way that would keep the U.S. from facing our race problem....
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