“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin
The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama. Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.
Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton. And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.
The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University. The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History. I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus. Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind. I loved it.
One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room. Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember. While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus. The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers. My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.” I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!” We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night. I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes. About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door. I opened it and discovered my friend. She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.
“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay. They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.” She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind. We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway. (Why? Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.) He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults. Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.
My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was. I was conflicted. Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job. What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her? He followed his instinct and had been wrong. But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life. Maybe mine.
I comforted my friend as best I could. I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day. Inside, though, I was deeply hurt. It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last. What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.
The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us. Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.