Was it really 20 years ago that David Dinkins was elected New York's first, and so far only, black mayor? I listened to him chatting with Brian Lehrer on WNYC this morning, talking about his election and that era, when New York was shifting from the often dangerous and gritty but also very culturally exciting city it had been for more than a decade and a half into the increasingly prosperous, safe, museum-like, rich people-friendly (but economically teetering) metropolis it is today. (And to make it even more rich-people friendly, the city is currently shipping homeless families down South, to Paris, to Puerto Rico, to Johannesburg, anywhere but here. NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg has articulated it as simply as possible: "We love rich people.")
According to at least one poll that's been touted over the last few days, Mayor Bloomberg's 22-point lead has slipped to 10 points over Comptroller Bill Thompson. Were Thompson able to gain any traction and assemble anything close to Dinkins's original coalition, or to counter the cynicism that Bloomberg's imperial mayoralty has generated, he might squeak by. Yet nearly everyone I speak with assumes Thompson doesn't have a chance of winning, especially given Bloomberg's financial dominance and the lukewarm support from the White House (at this point should we be surprised that Barack Obama is backing a neoliberal over someone who is truly liberal?). As a result, I predict Bloomberg will probably get his third term, which he finagled from the appalling supine City Council, and many New Yorkers will just shrug and not blink an eye. The devil you know is better than...? And when you have vastly more money than anyone else around, you can usually get your way. Just ask Goldman Sachs.
I had been refraining from publicly commenting on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. incident or arrest for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I figured there'd be a lot more swift and penetrating online commentaries--from bloggers, not the legacy media, that is--than anything I might offer. I did respond to a few private queries to say that I immediately read it as another awful racist spectacle. (I mean, can anyone name any other Harvard professor--full professor, holding a chair, internationally known, etc.--who has been arrested after identifying himself or herself, in his home, in the over 350+ years of that university's existence?)
I added that the situation really did defied explanation and reconfirmed yet again that racism, even in one of the most liberal cities in the United States, is alive and well. Others have said as much, and have pointed out that racial profiling goes on 24/7/365; that countless men of color are arrested and jailed disproportionately; that we have a prison-industrial situation that is awry; that we do not live in a police state and no one should internalize authoritarianism nor be arrested for exercising her or his First Amendment rights; and, as Stanley Fish beautifully put it in a July New York Times blog post, this isn't the first time that Professor Gates has had to endure racist nonsense. Of course this prior history will be lost or ignored by the broader media. Whether we're talking about college professors or former National Security Advisors, he isn't the only one and, unfortunately, he won't be the last.
I also suggested to C that President Obama's response to Chicago Tribune reporter Lynn Sweet's question about the Gates imbroglio would be all the legacy media focused on over the next few days. Unfortunately they proved me right.
Gates's arrest reminded me a situation that a very dear friend of mine, no longer in academe, experienced shortly after he got his first teaching job. A young black man with a Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious universities, he took a job at a major urban research university that is known, as academic institutions go, for being pretty progressive. Yet within his first year of being hired, he was stopped several times by security guards who did not believe that he was a faculty member. Not that it matters, but he always carried himself professionally and found it very hard to accept that this occurred; when he asked colleagues if they had had similar experiences, they told him they hadn't. What made the situation really upsetting for him, and what we discussed more than once, was that he worried if he complained (he did, I believe) about this treatment that it might adversely affect him, particularly with the dean of his division, his senior colleagues, and perhaps the institution itself. The fear of being labeled a troublemaker, a whiner and complainer, too sensitive, "uppity" (as some called Obama before the election, and as many an outspoken person of color or woman has been called in the past), a "racist" (as Gates himself has now been labeled by people on the net and anonymous Net posters), and so on, were all things he feared, not because because he invested any of them with truth, but because he knew that others might, and that people experiencing the kind of profiling he was encountering had been so tagged, and saw their careers derailed, in the past. If I recall correctly, he received sympathetic responses from all quarters, and as it turned it, he left the institution before his tenure case came up. But I did think of this situation almost as soon as I'd heard about what Gates experienced.
It also made me think of that horrible joke about Colin Powell (or any famous black person) walking down a darkened DC street: "What do you call him when he steps into the shadows?" Well, you know the answer. And the violence that could easily be enacted upon his body also knows none of the boundaries erected, however tenuously, by the social, political or economic capital he possesses.
I predict this incident and its aftermath will all be forgotten about soon enough, after the moment of spectacle passes, and the many issues raised by will be subsumed, as so many things are these days at the speed of light (or a new scandal or brouhaha), into anecdote.
"I was myself within in the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear." -- Frederick Douglass, quoted in Henry Louis Gates, Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (Oxford, 1989), p. xxiv, p. 97.