When Dr. Henry Louis Gates asked a Cambridge policeman, “Do you know who I am?” he could be forgiven for not realizing that the answer was “No!”
He was in his own home, with his drivers license and Harvard identification.
And Gates has done as much as anyone short of Drs. John Hope Franklin and Carter G. Woodson and Lerone Bennett to tell the saga of African-American heritage to a wide audience through his PBS specials, Encyclopedia Africana, web pages like The Root and countless interviews.
He was in a state with an African-American governor, Gov. Deval Patrick; in a country with an African-American president, President Barack H. Obama, for whom he had hosted a lavish inaugural ball. Obama had just addressed the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, after returning from a trip through the slave castles of Ghana.
However, he was also in a country where white haired senators from Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina accused Judge Sonia Sotamayor of being biased for celebrating her Puerto Rican heritage. They implied that only the pursuit of white male conservative values would constitute objectivity.
He was also in a country where the Congress just made carrying a loaded firearm in national parks legal, but where states like California and Michigan make it illegal to give a college scholarship to an African-American student.
Gates learned what Michael Jackson, James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. learned before him. No matter what your accomplishments, as an African-American, you are invisible in American society.
One reason is that whites who grow up and become policeman never see the scholarly work of Gates, Franklin, Woodson and Bennett. One of the results of standards-based education has been the elimination of diverse literature. Add to that, pervasive budget cuts in schools across the country.
As author of the four-volume history of African-Americans in California, I’ve become increasingly aware that my target audience should not only include African-Americans, but all Americans. In a presentation to the California Council for Social Studies called Black Heritage as Gap Closer, I presented the results of a survey which showed that most history teachers do not even know how to teach African-American history.
In my last entry, I noted that some of the top university campuses in the nation had buildings designed by African-American architects early in the 20th century, when it was still difficult for blacks to attend college.
But those accomplishments have been obscured.
So the descendants of slaveowners can say with a straight face that they are the true arbiters of justice.
Among the examples of African-Americans who have not only been stopped by police, but detained after showing the proper identification are the highest ranking black officer in the New York Police Dept. and the current head of Interpol, the international police agency.
It was more than a quip when Rep. Charles Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, suggested that President Obama should always have his Secret Service detail when visiting New York after the shooting of an off-duty policeman by the N.Y.P.D.
In fact, it occurs that even a Secret Service escort might help the President. Cambridge police unions and police around the country took umbrage at the President’s press conference remarks and those of Gov. Patrick and essentially forced the leader of the free world to back down to a police sergeant.
Now that police sergeant insisted that Professor Gates did not respect his authority, but it is interesting that the white police do not respect the authority of the President or Governor.
Obama or Patrick would be well advised not to ask “Do you know who I am?”
The lionization of the white firefighters in another college town, New Haven, site of Yale University, where Michelle Obama and Sotomayor attended law school, and the rallying behind the Cambridge policemen is an indication of the growing backlash against the rise of the likes of Obama, Patrick and New York Gov. David Paterson which makes those of us who are less well-known even more targets of white discrimination, which white privilege insists never happens, even in the most extreme cases.
Protests and new laws will not solve the problem. It will now take as comprehensive a focus on the economic development of the African-American community as we have had on erasing laws permitting segregation and gaining political offices.
Without economic leverage, holding offices, including the Oval Office, does not equate to power. Practically every large city which has had an African-American mayor has lost black population in the years since.
National Black Business Month in August is your opportunity to rise up like the Montgomery citizens who boycotted busses and department stores and make a statement for the future of the African-American community by seeking out at least one African-American business per day.
Yelling and screaming can feel good for a moment, but what you do with your dollars lasts for generations.
That’s the way to make people understand the answer to the question, “Do you know who I am?”