I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People (Don’t) Like Me!

Mitt Romney must feel as if he has truly entered the Twilight Zone, or that he is Stewart Smalley’s evil twin.  He is accomplished, intelligent, (sometimes) well-spoken, attractive, focused, determined, and very, very rich.  His opponents for the Republican nomination include a brilliant, but erratic and irascible former Speaker of the House, a conservative zealot trying to revive a derailed political career, and a libertarian maverick.  By any stretch of the conventional political imagination, Romney should be the poster child for a resounding victory against a weakened incumbent Democrat in November.  (What would the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater have done with a hand of cards like these?)  And yet…he seems unable to close the deal.  Or rather, the Republican rank and file just do not seem to be convinced that he is the man to lead them to the Promised Land of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Indeed, the latest polls of Republican voters place former Senator Rick “Sweater vest” Santorum ahead of Romney. How can this be so?  By most accounts, Romney has done just about everything right in his pursuit to become the standard-bearer for the Republican Party: he has piles of money, a disciplined organization, and a message that should resonate in hard economic times.  (And he has fabulous hair!)  To be sure, he as made some foolish statements; but to my knowledge he has neither said nor done anything that has made him unelectable.  Some say that the reason for the unease about Romney is that he is “not conservative enough.”  Others think that there may be a lingering prejudice against Mormons.  (I suspect, however, that these may be the same people who persist in believing that President Obama is a Muslim.)  Still others maintain that Romney’s capitalist success story has made it impossible for him to comprehend the plight of the struggling middle and lower classes of American society.  I do not pretend to have an answer for this baffling state of affairs.  Many people with bigger brains and even bigger paychecks are working around the clock on this one.  I have little doubt that the Romney Machine will find a way into the hearts — as well as the minds — of the GOP faithful.  The Man from Massachusetts may get a little bloody, and his perfectly pressed shirt and blue jeans may show a bit of mud from the campaign trail; but he will capture the nomination — and perhaps even the respect and devotion of his fellow Republicans. But Romney may find the 2012 Election to be the “dark, drizzly November of [his] soul.”  Why?  He just might win.  As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

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You Can’t Come Home Again

“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.