Gatesgate (or Maybe Skipgate?)

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First, the totally obvious joke: "loud and tumultuous" - you mean the cops bust in on one of Skip's classes? I don't mean to make light of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s recent arrest - it still perplexes me. But the charges seem especially absurd if you have ever taken a class with the man or seen him speak in public. He only knows how to command a space, whether it is a classroom or, one would assume, his own home. How would someone with his swagger not react in a "loud and tumultuous" fashion?

Even the most unflattering version of Gates' story casts the Cambridge P.D. (and his neighbor) in questionable light. The time of day, the way Gates and the driver were dressed, the fact that they weren't trying to conceal their actions, the manner in which he generally carries himself: wouldn't common sense applied earlier than later have suggested that this was all a misunderstanding?

Thus far, the Gates moment has produced some interesting commentary and re-referendums on whether we're really "post-racial" (what does that even mean?). Shock and dismay all around, with an occasional jab at Skip's rise as a seemingly apolitical, sui generis public scholar. [Check out Melissa Harris-Lacewell over at The Nation and my friend and colleague Kiese Laymon (MUST-READ).]

What next? Gates is clever, shrewd, a master showman and, above all else, genuinely brilliant. Is this the kind of thing that will radicalize him? Will the most famous black scholar in American history (probably) assume a more overtly politicized stance in his public profile?

If you read Skip's interview over at The Root, a few statements stand out:

I would sooner have believed the sky was going to fall from the heavens than I would have believed this could happen to me. It shouldn't have happened to me, and it shouldn't happen to anyone. As a college professor, I want to make this a teaching experience. I am going to devote my considerable resources, intellectual and otherwise, to making sure this doesn't happen again.

I thought the whole idea that America was post-racial and post-black was laughable from the beginning. [...] There haven't been fundamental structural changes in America. There's been a very important symbolic change and that is the election of Barack Obama. But the only black people who truly live in a post-racial world in America all live in a very nice house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bizarre statements, to be sure: Why would he assume something like this wouldn't happen to him? Why should he be any different? And how can he say that the Obamas live in a post-racial world, when he barely subscribes to the idea himself?

But this idea of turning the arrest into a "teaching moment" intrigues me - and it makes me wonder if Gates' interviews haven't been a performance of sorts. Who, in this case, needs to be taught? Surely not those who would be on the receiving end of this kind of profiling - those who already know that this sort of things happens more frequently than we would like to admit. What would that lesson be - Never lock yourself out of your house?

Maybe this is too generous of a reading, or maybe Gates' imagined audience is, by now, wholly instinctual and he is incapable of speaking above a safe, liberal register. But if Gates is really invested in "teaching" the public about the absurdity of all this - and he has always, in his career, for better or worse, strived for the widest audience possible - then he had best start with those who assume that racism is dead and gone, that class and professional status insulate folks of color from discrimination, that this kind of thing doesn't happen in broad daylight to a slight, well-dressed, Harvard professor. When he says these overly general, pie-in-the-sky things about his own exceptionalism, it lets down those who assume he should know better - but it also speaks directly to those who assume he would be above suspicion. This, after all, is a scholar frighteningly adept - too adept, some might accuse - at recognizing his audience and playing the discursive field. Perhaps it's a feigned shrug of the shoulders, addressed squarely at those who would see him differently if he was walking down the street, without glasses, a suit and an Ivy League gig.

The thought experiment gone bad that is Gates' arrest, Judge Sotomayor's dredged-up "wise Latina" moment, Eric Holder calling America a nation of "cowards," even the outpouring over MJ: regardless of the material implications Obama's tenure might have on race relations, at least it seems like we are finally having in public the conversations usually held in the privacy of the dining room or chat boxes, with close friends and fellow travelers.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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