Reverse Rosa Parks

One more on the Gates imbroglio, from James Taranto’s Best of the Web.  NB: This entire piece is lifted directly from WSJ’s daily Taranto email.  I omitted block quotes to preserve all internal quotations:

Forty-two-year-old Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, and convicted four days later of disorderly conduct. But the conduct that prompted her arrest–remaining in her seat on a municipal bus–was, by any reasonable standard, entirely orderly. But reason did not rule in segregated Montgomery, Ala., when bus driver James Blake ordered Parks to make way for a white passenger.

As Parks recounted in a 1987 interview, quoted in a State Department obituary: “When [Blake] saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’ ” He did.

It was a classic–and spectacularly successful–act of civil disobedience: protesting an unjust law by defying it and submitting to the authorities. A young pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., launched a boycott of the Montgomery bus system, and in December 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a trial judge’s order desegregating the Montgomery buses.

When Rosa Parks was arrested, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was 5. Skip ahead 53½ years, and we find Gates under arrest for disorderly conduct at his home in Cambridge, Mass. A passerby who did not know him had called 911 when she saw him trying to force open the door to his house. It was not the only case of mistaken identity that afternoon. When the cops arrived to investigate what they thought was a burglary, Gates mistook Sgt. James Crowley for Jim Crow. Gates antagonized Crowley, in what one might term an act of uncivil disobedience.

Like Parks, Gates sought to use his arrest to make a statement about racial injustice in America. Unlike Parks’s statement, Gates’s turned out to be false. By now it is clear that Gates erred in accusing Crowley of racial animus or profiling. The worst that can be said about the officer is that he acted stupidly by remaining on the scene once he had established that Gates had every right to be there.

But Gates went beyond asserting that he was the victim of racial discrimination. In an interview last week with The Root, an online magazine of which he is editor in chief, Gates claimed: “There haven’t been fundamental structural changes in America. . . . 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.” That is the address of the White House, official residence of President Barack Obama, who is black.

What happened in the aftermath of Gates’s arrest, however, belied his claim that “there haven’t been fundamental structural changes in America.” Parks, who comported herself with dignity throughout the 1955 incident, did not have the charges against her quickly dropped, and she did not get invited to the White House for a beer, as the Boston Globe reports Gates has been. (She did eventually make it to the White House, including in 1996, when President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)

Notwithstanding the problems that continue to affect black communities in America, two things clearly have changed enormously for the better: white attitudes and the structure of our legal system. If a bus driver today behaved the way James Blake did in 1955, almost everyone would view his actions as freakishly deviant. He would likely be fired and sued, maybe even arrested.

Gates, who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, is one of the most distinguished scholars of race in America. Yet in this incident, he saw individual racism where it was absent and failed to acknowledge the enormous social progress that America has undergone in his own lifetime. To judge by the commentary the Gates tumult has occasioned, such misunderstandings are very common among black Americans. Typical is this story from the Chicago Tribune:

Like Henry Louis Gates Jr., they are black professionals, men of status and achievement who have excelled in a nation that once shunned them.

Next comes the pivotal question: “Do I protest or just take it?”

And for many of them, their only shock upon learning of the celebrated scholar’s recent run-in with police was the shock of recognition.

They know too well the pivotal moment Gates faced at his Massachusetts home. It was that moment of suspicion when confronted by police, the moment one wonders, in a flash of panic, anger or confusion: “Maybe I am being treated this way because I’m black.”

The Tribune closes with an anecdote about a man who decided to “take it” rather than to “protest”:

Vibert White, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, recalled driving along a highway in Indiana, and spotting a line of cars that had pulled to the side of the road. All the drivers were black men. So White, too, pulled over.

”He told me, ‘Sir, you can go on with your business.’ I realized how deeply ingrained this lesson had become–of not causing a ruckus, of just playing the game, of doing what you needed to do in order to live your life.”

An officer walked up and asked him why he stopped.

”I told him that I’d seen the line of cars and just reacted,” said White, 51.

White was submissive rather than aggressive, but there was no actual need for him to be either. Although he responded to the situation very differently than Gates did, he misread it in exactly the same way: by falsely assuming that police were targeting him because he was black.

It would be churlish to suggest that blacks are to blame for such misunderstandings, which obviously have their roots in injustices of the not-that-distant past. But blacks bear the burden of such suspicions and, by necessity, of overcoming them. Rosa Parks’s arrest forced Americans to confront the gap between our ideals and reality. Perhaps the Gates tumult will induce a reckoning with the gap between the assumption of still-pervasive racism and the reality of America in 2009.

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1 Comment

Filed under Race in America

One response to “Reverse Rosa Parks

  1. Jason

    I have HQ audio of the 911 call, Moderator, If you are interested

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