Workers Vanguard No. 940
31 July 2009
Henry Louis Gates Jr.s Arrest
Obamas Change Is More of the Same
The arrest of distinguished black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has touched off a public debate on race in the U.S., ranging from media pundits and academics to President Barack Obama. Gates was arrested on July 16 by a white Cambridge, Massachusetts, cop as he stood on his own porch. Someone had called the police to report a possible break-in after seeing Gates force open the jammed door of his house. Speaking of the cop, Gates said in a statement: “Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.” Though he presented proof of his identity, the cops dragged Gates off in handcuffs, accusing him of being “loud and tumultuous.”
The election of Obama was celebrated by many, especially blacks, who believed that it heralded an easing of the nightmare of racial oppression suffered by the mass of the black population. That an eminent world-class scholar—who is on a first-name basis with the president, no less—can be subjected to such patently racist abuse speaks volumes about the condition of black people in this country, and it shows how little it has been changed by Obama’s election. The somber reality is that racial oppression is structurally embedded in American capitalism and will not be overcome short of socialist revolution.
Obama initially declared that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates, provoking a furious uproar by police groups across the country. The head of the Cambridge police association defiantly demanded that Obama “make an apology to all law enforcement personnel.” The president promptly backtracked, declaring that both sides had “overreacted.” Obama invited both Gates and the cop to the White House to talk it out over a beer.
In the same spirit, liberal black commentators (and Gates himself) have responded by calling for more “sensitivity training” of the police. Such schemes simply try to clean up the cops’ image so that these armed enforcers of capitalist rule can more effectively do their job. Police brutality can never be “reformed” out of the capitalist system because enforcing the capitalist rulers’ racist “law and order,” whether against blacks, Latinos and other minorities or striking workers, is what the cops are paid to do. In fact, the cop who arrested Gates had given classes to other cops on avoiding “racial profiling.”
Obama ceded so readily to pressure from the police because, as Commander-in-Chief of racist U.S. imperialism, he is the top cop responsible for enforcing the dictates of U.S. capitalist rule, from the streets of Cambridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. The president’s supposedly even-handed judgment that both sides “overreacted” in fact emboldens the police to continue to harass, intimidate and frame up black people for objecting to racist mistreatment.
Gates’s “crime” was that he objected to being treated like a criminal at the hands of a cop who sought to humiliate him and put him “in his place.” Gates is justifiably proud of his intellectual achievements and hardly reticent to show it. In the view of white racists, he is an “uppity” black man. Yet the treatment meted out to this eminent professor was plenty mild compared to what might happen to a ghetto resident who got into a confrontation with the cops. Gates was released after four hours in jail, and the disorderly conduct charge was dropped. Another in his place might have faced serious criminal charges, had drugs planted on him, been beaten or even shot. On July 11, Shem Walker, a black Army veteran, was gunned down in front of his mother’s home in Brooklyn when he tried to push an undercover cop off the stoop, thinking he was trespassing.
It was Obama’s recognition of Gates’s class status in the black petty bourgeoisie that caused the president to weigh in, likening the incident to “racial profiling.” (Imagining himself in Gates’s shoes, Obama quipped that if he himself tried to break into his current residence he could be shot.) Contrast that with Obama’s reaction two years ago to the Jim Crow “justice” meted out to the Jena Six in Louisiana, five of whom were charged with attempted murder following a schoolyard scuffle with a white student. That scuffle followed months of racist threats and insults, including the display of hangman’s nooses, after black students sat under the school’s “white tree.” Obama said he just wanted “fairness” in Jena, claiming it “isn’t a matter of black and white.”
Or look at Obama’s reaction last year when the New York City cops who gunned down Sean Bell in a firestorm of 50 bullets on his wedding day were found “not guilty” on all counts. Obama intoned: “We’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down.” Likewise, in 2005 when America’s racist capitalist rulers, in the face of Hurricane Katrina, abandoned masses of overwhelmingly black and poor people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, leaving them to die, Obama’s verdict on this racist atrocity was that “the ineptitude was color-blind.”
The hue and cry from “respectable” black petty-bourgeois spokesmen in response to Gates’s arrest is in sharp contrast to their deafening silence regarding the countless black youth who are stopped, interrogated and beaten by the cops, black or white, in this country’s brutal inner cities. Shem Walker’s killing, for example, was pretty much treated by black leaders as a non-event.
The same day that Gates was being dragged off by Cambridge cops, Obama delivered an address to the NAACP’s centennial convention in which he declared to enthusiastic applause:
“We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes—because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we’ve internalized a sense of limitation.... Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades.... No excuses.”
The myth that black oppression exists in people’s minds, rather than being inherent to American capitalism, serves to blame the oppressed for their oppression. Ghetto schools are nothing but holding pens for minority youth with no future in society because, especially with the deindustrialization of this country, black ghetto youth are not wanted or needed by America’s capitalist rulers. The daily reality of black life in America can be measured by the nearly one million black men and women who are incarcerated in the country’s jails and prisons.
After Gates’s arrest, papers from the Harvard Crimson to the New York Times have run “exposés” detailing how black professionals have been harassed by police in Harvard Yard and throughout the country. “None of us African-American residents of Cambridge are surprised or shocked,” one Harvard graduate student wrote (Black Commentator, 23 July). At Harvard, which like other elite Ivy League schools reeks with arrogant self-satisfaction in its role as a bastion of white upper-class privilege, black students and faculty are subjected to pervasive oppression and prejudice. When Larry Summers became Harvard president in 2001, he went on the warpath against the Department of African and African American Studies (of which Gates was then the head), driving out black intellectual Cornel West. Today Summers is the head of Obama’s National Economic Council and key to the president’s plan that has granted hundreds of billions of dollars to the capitalists while forcing increased sacrifice on the workers.
Black people in the U.S. are a race-color caste, oppressed as a people regardless of class. The position of the black middle class in this country is a precarious one, even in elite enclaves like Harvard. At the same time, as we wrote following Obama’s inauguration in “Barack Obama Takes Helm of Racist U.S. Imperialism” (WV No. 929, 30 January):
“Class divisions within the black population have become very sharp, marked by the growing gulf between the small minority consisting of the black petty bourgeoisie, who went through the gates opened by the gains of the civil rights movement, and black workers and the massive ‘underclass’ of the permanently unemployed, swollen through the devastation of American industry. Especially the upper crust of the black petty bourgeoisie could very well see material benefits from Obama’s victory, which broke a ‘glass ceiling.’ But for the black proletariat and the masses in the ghettos, conditions of life are already being further devastated. Just as it was another popular Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who ended ‘welfare as we know it,’ where prior Republican administrations had failed, Obama today is in a better position to extract further ‘sacrifice’ from working people in the midst of the deepening recession .
“The road to black freedom lies in the struggle to shatter this racist capitalist system through proletarian socialist revolution, and the power to do that lies with the multiracial working class.”