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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I Want to Know What It Feels like to Be Free

I am watching Soledad O'Brian on CNN. She is the Black/Hispanic/mixedrace anchor who is responsible for producing the "Black In America" show which aired a while back. She is about to air Black in America Two" tonight. In the meantime she is interviewing accomplished African Americans about their role models, their mentors, how they became so  accomplished.

The first guest on her show was Professor Henry Louis Gates who talked about being arrested this week by a "rogue/racist" white cop in Harvard Square in his own house. A neighbor reported seeing "two black men" trying to break into a house in the prestigious neighborhood near the University and the police responded.

When the police arrived to find the University professor inside his home they asked him for identification. Dr. Gates made the mistake of requiring them to present their identification as well. After getting their badge numbers ad giving him his ID, proving he was the owner of the house and accusing the officer of racial profiling, he was arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct."

It is a bit difficult to imagine that the distinguished 58 year old scholar, one of the best known and most published black scholars in the country, who standing at only 5'7", weighing 150 lbs, and walking with a cane could have intimidated the three officers present. Dr. Gates reports it was only the intervention of the one black officer who prevented him from having to try to walk with his arms handcuffed behind his back, something that as a disabled man, he would have been incapable of doing without falling.

The rogue cop filed a report full of spurious and false claims but the charges were later dropped although the Cambridge police refuses to admit to any wrongdoing and claims race was not a factor. Numerous black professors would beg to differ. They too have been stopped by Cambridge police for daring to be black on the campus of the most prestigious university in the country. Their white colleagues have not suffered similar fates.

As a professor of African American ancestry I have also been treated in ways my white colleagues never have. I am a success story. I am professor of philosophy. I have become what my grandmother never could have become, no matter how brilliant she was. I am proof of the progress we have made as a race, as a country on the subject of racism. I have had opportunities my Black father never had and I am grateful for this.

We have a black/mixedrace president now. We have Black and Latino news anchors, congresspeople, and businessfolk. We have a Latina woman soon to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. Her mother never could have achieved that goal no matter how hard she worked. We have come a long way.

But events in recent weeks remind us that we also have a long way to go. Despite my having a PH.D. from the top-rated University in the world (UCBerkeley)  I am on the receiving end of racism on a regular basis. Despite his accomplishments, Dr. Gates was arrested. Despite being the most qualified nominee in a hundred years, Sotomayor experienced racism at the hands of white male congressmen during confirmation hearings. President Obama has had so many threats against his life (more than Lincoln when he was threatening to abolish slavery) he has had to be under more extreme security than any other president in history. Its good to have opportunities, it would be better to be treated as if we deserved them.

Soledad's next guest was a famous national radio show host, Bev Smith. She talked about coming from a long line of African American forebears who fought for justice. Soledad asked her to comment on  the remarks of a little boy who was one of the 60 black and latino summer campers who were subjected to racist remarks and ejected from a private pool in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. The little boy said he didn't think this kind of thing could happen in America when we have a black president. Bev Smith said, Well we have a lot of symbols, Soledad. We have Obama, we have Oprah, we have am African American professor at Harvard, we have you on CNN... and that's good but that's not enough.

"I am tired of symbols," she said. " I want to know what it feels like to be free."

I agree with Bev. I, too, want to know what it feels like to be free. 

When will that be?