Being Home While Black

Editorial Notebook

July 25, 2009|By Glenn McNatt

I have to say I feel for Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested last week by police acting on a report of a burglary at his house.

Turns out the "burglar" was Mr. Gates himself, whom a neighbor had spotted struggling to unlock a stuck front door at his house after returning from a trip abroad. When police arrived a few minutes later, after Mr. Gates had gained entry to his place, things somehow went wacko.

Earlier this week, I reported on The Sun's editorial page blog ( that a similar mix-up happened to me some years ago, shortly after my family moved into a house in Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood. Someone saw me emptying the trash one evening and called the police.

I was in the kitchen finishing up the dinner dishes when they knocked on the back door; when I opened it they entered and asked if I lived there.

In the end I had to show my driver's license, then call my wife and daughter downstairs to vouch for me.

Unlike Mr. Gates, however, I didn't automatically assume the two officers were racists; one of them was white, the other African-American. I figured they were just doing their job and that they probably were as wary of me as I was of them. In any case, they both managed to be civil, while remaining professionally vigilant, until my story checked out. And I was ever the mild-mannered editorialist, though I didn't mention where I worked.

Eventually they satisfied themselves that everything was OK and left. I didn't demand an apology, and they didn't offer one.

Afterward, I wondered whether I should have been more indignant, as Mr. Gates apparently was. I had made an instant judgment that there was no point in escalating a situation with a potential to turn nasty, especially with loved ones in the house.

We all bring to such encounters our unique personal histories and agendas. The truth is, that evening I just wasn't into making a federal civil rights case out of an obvious misunderstanding, even if the mistake did hinge on the ever touchy subject of race.

Meek as it may make me sound, all I really wanted at the time was to get the dishwasher going, cut the lights and call it a night.

Reader responses to the blog, a sampling of which are printed below, ran the gamut from nods for keeping cool in a dicey situation to reproaches for wimping out on a challenge to my manhood. One reader wondered whether I would have done the same if my wife and kid hadn't been there; another observed it's never a good idea to provoke the police, even if one feels they're way out of line.

Some readers thought the real reason Mr. Gates was arrested was because police perceived him as "uppity" - a black man who didn't show proper deference to authority. But among those who considered how a white man would have been treated for mouthing off the same way, opinion seemed split pretty much down the middle - and not obviously along racial lines.

The debate over Mr. Gates grew even louder, of course, after President Barack Obama said at a press conference Wednesday that Cambridge police behaved "stupidly" by arresting Mr. Gates, whom he described as a personal friend, even after he had produced a driver's license and university ID proving he was the house's rightful occupant. Mr. Obama went on to condemn racial profiling, a tactic he suggested encourages police to view any person of color as a potential criminal suspect, no matter how upstanding or distinguished he or she may be.

Mr. Obama's comment made me reconsider my own reaction that long-ago evening. Yes, I did have a momentary impulse not to cooperate with what seemed an unfair and insulting inquiry into whether I belonged in my own house. And yes, I was angry and intimidated by two guys with guns barging into my kitchen.

But trying to treat them civilly wasn't just an act, either. I really did feel something like a moral responsibility to straighten things out in a way that left us all a little wiser. Not every situation calls for confrontation (though a few years later, in a very different context, I did put up a fight when I suspected I and others had been targets of intentional discrimination).

The great black scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote that all African-Americans suffer from what he called "double consciousness" - an awareness not only of who we are as individuals but also of how we are perceived by a larger society that long was taught to regard us with contempt. Even in the Age of Obama, this is a reality black people still live with. The day after Mr. Obama's remarks, for example, a black co-worker at the office told me a new white colleague recently encountered her in the ladies' room and for a moment assumed she was the maid.

I imagine that, however well-intentioned, whoever called to report me taking out the trash suffered a similar social myopia. But that wasn't the police's fault, and I think by the time they left they had pretty much figured out for themselves what had transpired: Neighbor sees black guy in yard and panics. It probably happens every day, but on that occasion it was left to me and the two cops in my kitchen to sort the tangled threads of our country's absurd and tragic racial history. Treating them the way I'd like to be treated myself seemed like a good place to start.


Glenn McNatt

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