His strong sense of being vic timized by White America was, I feel certain, what drove the behavior of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., widely known as Skip, that led to his arrest at his home in Cambridge shortly after midnight on July 16.
I have participated with Mr. Gates in two conferences on race relations in the United States that took place on the Vineyard, where I reside, the first in the early 1990s, the second last September. In each, it was clear to me that he views himself as a victim of American racism, in a manner less strident but nonetheless reminiscent of the prominent black movie producer Spike Lee, a summer Vineyard resident.
Mr. Lee, who believes he has been so discriminated against in the United States that he refuses to stand when The Star Spangled Banner is played, has a summer home on the 18th hole at Farm Neck from which, further endearing himself to most Vineyarders, he flies a New York Yankees flag.
In his important book Losing the Race, John McWhorter, an African American who taught linguistics at the University of California, argues that victimology is a major obstacle to blacks entering, and enjoying the benefits of, the American cultural mainstream. Professor Gates has made his way professionally as a genteel guru of victimology — although it’s difficult to detect his victimhood as a chaired, senior Harvard professor.
On the Vineyard the conference last September — on the eve of the election of the first black president in American history — amounted to an orgy of victimology. Mr. Gates was there. I was the only white panelist, invited by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the moderator, when Stanley Crouch, the prominent anti-victimology African American, was unable to participate. Charlayne knows me and was aware, number one that I was an avid Obama supporter, and number two that I believed that the black subculture, not racism and discrimination, was the principal cause of black underachievement.
I became an instant pariah at that conference. One of the speakers, Prof. Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University, described the United States as a “white supremacy society” — this, to repeat, on the eve of the election of Barack Obama.
And Prof. Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University insisted that she and other African Americans were entitled to an official apology for slavery, racism, and discrimination — in the form of reparations payments.
The comments of Professor Harris-Lacewell and Professor White were roundly applauded by the audience, and, presumably, by Skip Gates.
In another view, Keith Richburg, The Washington Post’s current New York bureau chief, who is black, was based in Kenya as the Post’s Africa bureau chief from 1991 to 1994. Mr. Richburg traveled throughout Africa reporting on wars, famines, mass murders, and the corruption of African politics. Unlike many black Americans who romanticize Africa, he concludes that he is simply an American, not an African American.
The New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan had this to say about Richburg’s book Out of America in the The New York Times Book Review:
“To his credit, Mr. Richburg lays out his own confusion and guilt about saying some of the things he does . . . he is candid about his gratitude that his ancestors made it to America. Mr. Richburg lambastes whites in the West who, for fear of appearing racist, hesitate to place responsibility for Africa’s woes on African shoulders, and then he extends this criticism to white Americans who are allegedly afraid to hold black Americans responsible for their own woes.”
Think of how John McWhorter might have handled the episode in Cambridge.
Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley: “May I see some identification, sir?”
McWhorter, smiling and producing the necessary ID: “I’m aware that more than half of all robberies in the United States are perpetrated by African Americans, officer . . . ”
Sergeant Crowley: “That may or may not be true, sir, but it is irrelevant to my request for your identification. A neighbor reported suspicious activity at your house . . .”
McWhorter, again with a smile: “Fair enough, officer.”
End of incident.
Lawrence Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is the author, most recently, of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change A Culture And Save It From Itself. He lives in Vineyard Haven.