“Skip” Gates: A Curious Martyr in the Struggle Against Racism

gates in studyby Paul Street
President Obama’s “friend” Dr. Henry Louis Gates has been richly rewarded for arguing “that poor African-Americans are largely to blame for the fact that blacks stand at the bottom of the nation’s steep socioeconomic pyramid.” Presumably, and by the same logic, Gates must now blame himself for getting arrested in his own home by a Cambridge policeman. Actually, Gates’ first impulse was to cash in on the experience with a “PBS special” on Blacks and the criminal justice system – a subject that never previously crossed his mind.
“Skip” Gates: A Curious Martyr in the Struggle Against Racism
by Paul Street
“Gates is thinking of doing 'a PBS special' about his confrontation.”
Threatening to Do “Another PBS Special”
The black-bourgeois Harvard professor and Cambridge, Massachusetts resident Henry Louis “Skip” Gates (who is certainly far into the six figure salary stratosphere at the nation’s top university) is a curious martyr in the struggle against racism. He recently claimed that his now nationally sensationalized experience of being arrested in his own home – after being seen forcing his way (along with his cabdriver) into his residence upon returning from China (an action that elicited a neighbor’s call to the police) and then launching into a tirade against the Cambridge police sent to investigate – has reminded him of the oppression that poor blacks face in the U.S. He is thinking, he says, of doing “a PBS special” about his confrontation with a “rogue racist police officer” in affluent, leafy Cambridge and how that experience connects him to the truly oppressed people down in Roxbury, Dorchester, Bedford Stuyvesant, South Central Los Angeles, Benton Harbor (Michigan), and the West Side of Chicago. 
He’s in the national spotlight thanks in no small part to President Barack Obama’s politically ill-advised statement – made at the heavily distracting end of a prime-time press conference in which he was attempting to sell his watered-down, corporate-friendly “health care reform” – that Gates’ arrest was a “stupid” action on the part of the Cambridge police. The president referred to Gates as a personal friend and admitted to not being particularly knowledgeable about the specifics involved in the Gates-Cambridge incident. 
Gates “Deciding, Deciding”...to Blame the Black and Poor Victim in his Last PBS Special
Another “PBS special” from Henry Louis Gates? White supremacists can be forgiven if they are not shaking in their boots. Five and a half years ago, the bourgeois professor fouled Black History Month by narrating an ambitious, four-part, and British-directed Public Broadcasting System television series titled "America Beyond the Color Line." Purportedly dedicated to providing a provocative new take on race, class, and black experience in the U.S., Gates’ documentary spent an inordinate amount of time beating up on impoverished blacks for not having any, well, class. Accepting the dominant privilege-friendly and Euro-bourgeois notion that success, empowerment, and freedom are essentially available to all who exhibit proper individual initiative and "personal responsibility," Gates argued that poor African-Americans are largely to blame for the fact that blacks stand at the bottom of the nation’s steep socioeconomic pyramid. In “America Beyond the Color Line,” Gates did not understand class in the radical way that the term has been used by leading black intellectuals and activists like W.E.B. DuBois, CLR James, Martin Luther King and Manning Marable: as an oppression structure that is intimately and inseparably (dare I say dialectically) bound up with race (today we must of course add gender) in the construction and preservation of American inequality. [1] He used “class” rather in the bourgeois and accommodationist Booker T. Washington [2] sense, arguing that lower-class blacks needed to work harder and smarter to acquire the middle- and upper-class skills, education, habits and values possessed in greater degree by black elites. One of those elites Gates held up as a role model in “America Beyond the Color” was the leading imperialist figurehead Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, featured as an example of what blacks can accomplish when they work hard, study, save and behave decently.
“Gates’ documentary spent an inordinate amount of time beating up on impoverished blacks for not having any, well, class.”
"Unless there is a moral revolution and a revolution in attitude among our people,” Gates told Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson as “America Beyond the Color Line” hit the airwaves, “unless [poor blacks] decide to stay in school, learn the ABCs, not to get pregnant when you're 16, not to run drugs, not to sell drugs...we're doomed to have a relatively small black middle class and huge underclass and never the twain shall meet. The only way we can succeed in society," "is mastering the ABCs, staying in school, working hard, deferred gratification. What's happened to these values?" asked Gates. "My father always said, and it's true, if we studied calculus like we studied basketball, we'd be running MIT. It's true and there's no excuse.” [3]
This was the key theme in a previous PBS special narrated by Gates. In that documentary, titled "Two Nations," Gates proclaimed that black poverty was pretty much about poor decisions: "deciding to get pregnant or not to have protected sex. Deciding to do drugs.  Deciding not to study.  Deciding, deciding, deciding..." [4]
"A Wake-Up Call ...More Especially to Black America"
Gates told the Chicago Tribune that "America Beyond" was "meant to be a wake-up call to America, but more especially to black America, saying ‘are we crazy? What are we doing here? We can't just keep saying,'" Gates argues, "‘the white man made me do it.'"
The Tribune’s Johnson reporter found that "America Beyond's" "most striking" aspect was "the degree to which it pushes the idea of personal responsibility as the best solution to the black community's problems," which, the reporter says, "is perhaps not something you expect to hear from a man who identifies himself as politically ‘center-left.'" While knowing full well that larger, interrelated forces of capitalism and racism play a role in the creation of deep and disproportionate black poverty, (he is not stupid), Gates decided (perhaps I should say “decided, decided, decided”) in “America Beyond” and in “Two Nation” to skip past structural-racism and get to the meat of the matter: the personal responsibility of poor blacks.
“Gates proclaimed that black poverty was pretty much about poor decisions.”
It was a comforting message, no doubt, for much of white America, most of which has embraced the convenient notion that racism (structural or otherwise) no longer poses serious problems for blacks and that the real barriers to black success and equality are located in the African-American community itself. "As white America sees it," noted Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their excellent study By The Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (New York: Plume, 2000), "every effort has been to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now they're on their own." Predominant white attitudes at the turn of the millennium are well summarized by the comments of a white respondent to a survey conducted by Essence magazine. "No place that I'm aware of," wrote the respondent, "makes [black] people ride on the back of the bus or use a different restroom in this day and age.  We got the message; we made the corrections - get on with it."
The election of Gates’ friend, Harvard graduate Barack Obama, to the White House, has of course pretty much closed the door on the chance that many American whites will understand that the “corrections” (an interesting word choice in a time when black prisoners account for nearly half of “freedom”-loving America’s globally unmatched incarceration rate!) are only minimally underway if at all.
Racial Snitching: “Is it the System, the Man, Racism…Capitalism?”
Presented through the quintessentially Caucasian venue of the PBS documentary, much of "America Beyond" seemed like racially treasonous snitching. In one scene from Chicago's predominantly black South Side, Gates looked incredulous as a young woman offered him no rational reason for having a large number of children out of wedlock during her late teens and 20s. Another South Side scene in the special had Gates talking to a group of young black women who were enrolled in a program designed to help them escape ghetto life. Gates asked one young lady who or what she blamed for the desperate situation of so many of the city's African-Americans. "Is it the system, the man, racism," Gates asked her, "is it capitalism?" Failing to cite Marx, DuBois or Malcom X or the latest left-sociological research on the racially disparate impact of capitalist de-industrialization [5], the woman earned Gates' approval by emphasizing the poor choices made by ghetto residents she knew!
During one telling sequence in "America Beyond," Gates sat across from a black inmate at a notorious and giant racist holding pen – Chicago’s Cook County Jail. After telling the inmate how much he himself loved attending school as a youth, Gates looked disturbed as his interview subject recalled alienation from the inadequate public school to which he was assigned by virtue of his boyhood address in a dangerous, poverty-ridden Chicago neighborhood. As the dialogue between the Harvard professor and the jail inmate concluded, both agreed on the basic wisdom of an uncontroversial conclusion: America's nearly one million black prison and jail inmates would be better off if they had hit the books and not joined gangs during their youth.
The point was shared in “America Beyond” by U.S. Secretary of State Powell, who told Gates that young blacks needed to...make better choices in life. (Gates did not ask Powell to elaborate on the moral character of the Secretary's choice to support the bloody, illegal, unjust, and thoroughly unnecessary invasion of Iraq by collaborating in the manufacture of spectacular high-state deceptions regarding the threat posed by the feeble regime of Saddam Hussein. There was no discussion of a younger Powell's role in the Pentagon's early attempts to cover-up the 1968 My Lai massacres.)
Critical Omissions in the Call for Better Choices
There was nothing in “America Beyond the Color Line” about the need to make a "wake-up call" to the more structurally empowered and predominantly white business and government decision-makers who negatively affect black experience by "deciding, deciding, deciding" to, for example:
* deny blacks equal access to the nation's highest opportunity communities through a panoply of well-documented discriminatory real-estate, home-lending, and zoning practices and policies.
* target blacks for historically and globally unmatched mass incarceration and felony marking, thereby richly exacerbating the already deep socioeconomic and political disadvantage of lower-class African-Americans.
* maintain strict lines of racial segregation between predominantly black and under-funded inner city schools and predominantly white, affluent, and well-funded suburban school districts.
* divert hundreds of billions of dollars from social programs needed to assist the victims of domestic U.S. structural racism to pay for economically dysfunctional tax cuts that benefit the disproportionately white opulent few and to pay for an objectively racist foreign policy that pays its primary dividends to wealthy whites.
* disinvest in communities of color, helping create the barren material underpinning for neighborhoods where adult males with felony records and prison histories are more numerous than livable wage jobs.
* sponsor and protect various overseas drug lords who happen to serve America's imperial objectives while conducting a massive domestic anti-narcotics campaign that is significantly less effective and much more expensive than treatment when it comes to mitigating the ravages of substance abuse and generates the critical raw material (black bodies) for the nation's remarkable, globally unmatched and white-run prison industrial complex.
* permeate severely disadvantaged black neighborhoods with predatory financial institutions that exploit ghetto residents' limited economic choices.
* go easy with affluent white corporate and high-state criminals who devastate untold lives and communities with fraudulent practices and schemes while consigning hundreds of thousands of poor blacks to hard time in violent mass incarceration facilities for small-time narcotics transgressions that are deemed unworthy of imprisonment in every other nation in the democratic world.
* subvert the meaning and significance of American democracy by constructing a preposterously expensive, big-money and big-media-dominated "winner-take-all" election system that makes it absurdly difficult for racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities to translate their vital needs and perspectives into policy.
* attack "affirmative action" college admissions practices that try to marginally compensate a minority of blacks for centuries of structural racism while maintaining silence over "legacy" admissions practices that reward predominantly white applicants (i.e., Harvard and Yale graduate George W. Bush) for being born into a family that attended the same school in the past.
There was no call in "America Beyond" for a new "personal responsibility" on the part of the very predominantly white agents and beneficiaries of the above, bullet-pointed bad decisions (a small share of the poor and dangerous choices that can be observed in the corridors of Caucasian power and privilege)? There was no demand that these perpetrators "wake up" to their need to make better decisions more consistent with the supposed noble American Values of hard work, honesty, saving, deferred gratification, and non-reliance on public assistance - critical omissions!
Booker T. Obama
Obama’s initial, off-the-cuff defense of his Harvard friend Gates’ position on what(ever) recently happened in Cambridge is also somewhat ironic and yet appropriate. “America Beyond” portrayed racial inequality and its causes in much the same Booker T. Washingtonian terms as those used by Barack Obama on the rare occasions when he feels compelled to explicitly address the problem of race. The capitalism- and Wall Street-friendly/-captive and “black but not like Jesse” president has made a career – a rather spectacularly successful one to date – out of militant race-neutralism. Taking his cue from the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), he has consistently respected majority-white race fears and denial by distancing himself from the supposedly obsolete and dysfunctional notion that racism still poses serious barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. He has spent a significant amount of time and energy lecturing lower- and working-class blacks – most recently at the 100th anniversary dinner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – on their need to take personal and cultural responsibility for their own position in a supposedly opportunity-filled and “magical place called America.” As Obama “explained” in his instantly famous Race Speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008, black rage at white racial oppression made sense in the post-Word War II America in which his former spiritual mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright (thrown under the bus by the Obama campaign because of the pastor’s nasty habit of telling basic truths about living U.S. racism and imperialism) came of age. Such rage does not make quite so much sense in contemporary America, however, the president-to-be felt – not in a nation where blacks had come (as Obama explained to Civil Rights Movement veterans in Selma, Alabama in March of 2007) “nine-tenths of the way” to equality (a rather curious statement in a country where black unemployment and poverty rates are double those of whites and where black median household net worth comes to seven cents on the white dollar!). [6]
“The president has made a career out of militant race-neutralism.”
Likes Gates, Obama is far from stupid. He knows full well (as is clear from his recent NACCP address [7]) that structural discrimination and racial bias continue to be major factors in black experience and racial inequality. He has decided (and “decided and decided”), however – for reasons that make political sense in a nation whose white-majority electorate is in deep “post-Civil Rights” denial about how powerfully white supremacy has (in historian David Roediger’s phrase) “survived U.S. history” – to take the Booker T. Washingtonian road and to place primary emphasis on sending a “wake up call” to black America, not to white America. We can expect (I am writing on the morning of Friday, July 24th) him and his handlers to backtrack from his support for Gates [8], which was foolishly and somewhat uncharacteristically issued prior to a thorough review of the facts involved in the specific case. Those facts and, far more importantly for the Obama/Axelrod administration, the public opinion data (reflecting the incident’s likely reinforcement of white racism-denial) simply do not recommend a pro-Gates position. Ironically enough, being seen as allied with Gates works against Obama’s carefully constructed “post-racial” image in this particular case. In the meantime, consistent with the master class’s longstanding use of race to divide and divert, the corporate media and the right have seized on the Gates-Cambridge-Obama story in ways that are helping distract attention from the health care issue.
Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
1. For a recent brilliant and radical take on race and class in the American experience, see David Roediger. How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon (New York: Verso, 2008).
2. Booker T. Washington was a leading black spokesperson before, during, and after the turn of the 20th century. Rejecting the idealistic and confrontational approach of the great black leader Frederick Douglass and the later Civil Rights Movement, Washington preached quiet adaptation to the existing white supremacist and capitalist order. Disavowing racial protest, he called for blacks to “cast down their buckets” where they were and to silently but diligently acquire mildly remunerative skills that would permit them to move up a step or two within the segregationist Jim Crow order,
3. Steve Johnson, “Behind Gates: How the Harvard Scholar is Using His ‘Color-Line’ PBS as a Wake-Up Call,” Chicago Tribune, February 3, 2004, section 5, page 1.
4. Frontline (“P”BS), “The Two Nations of Black America: A Conversation With Henry Louis Gates,” (no date, remarkably enough), read at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/gates4.html
5. For my own efforts on that topic, please see Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), pp. 196-202.
6. Paul Street Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), Chapter 3, titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation, and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era” (pp. 73-121); Paul Street, “Race Cowardice From the Top Down,” Black Agenda Report (April 22, 2009) read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/race-cowardice-top-down; Glen Ford, “Obama Stumbles on His Own Contradictions: Pop Goes the Race-Neutral Campaign!,” Black Agenda Report (April 30, 2008); Barack Obama, “Remarks to the NAACP Centennial Convention,” Hilton, New York (July 17, 2009), read online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-t... ; Tom Eley, “Obama’s Speech to the NAACP,” World Socialist Web Site (July 18, 2009), read at http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/jul2009/pers-j18.shtml
7. See Obama’ “Remarks to the NAACP,” paragraphs 10 to 14.
8. My expectation was born out. See Nancy Benac, “Obama Moves to Dampen Uproar Over Comment on Race,” Associated Press (July 25, 2009), read online at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090725/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_obama_harvard_scholar