Within the United States people of all races are having the same conversation blacks have had in barber shops, beauty salons, on street corners and at kitchen tables for generations—our seemingly imbalanced relationship with the police. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reminds me of the night I spent in jail. While driving from work in downtown Oakland to my home in west Berkeley, a police car stopped me. My tags were expired but I had already paid the renewal fees. I simply awaited the stickers in the mail. I confidently handed the officer my driver’s license, proof of insurance and a receipt showing I had paid my registration. After dispatching my information, he approached my car to inform me there was a warrant for my arrest and he would send me to jail.
Like Gates, I am an African-American male with an advanced degree who lives in a university town. I perceived my offense as insignificant in the context of working in crime-ridden Oakland. I hadn’t raped, robbed or murdered anyone; I had failed to pay a traffic ticket. My experience differed from Gates’ in that one of my arresting officers was black, black like me.
Race is an illusory social construction within which many of us function as if it is real. The Gates incident reveals that underlying these constructions is the question of power—who has the power to define, to include or exclude, to establish the norm. Both Gates and Officer Crowley faced a challenge to their power. Gates is an upper-middle-class university professor who found himself, to his surprise, treated like an average black man (an outsider) in his own neighborhood and indeed in his own home. He lamented, “There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them…this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it.” Officer Crowley, who previously trained other officers to avoid racial profiling, found his authority publicly challenged. But power has no race, or color. We all benefit and suffer by the multifarious ways power manifests as racism, sexism, class and even one person’s ability to deny another physical freedom.
As the white cop who transported me from the corner of Martin Luther King and San Pablo contested my arrest with his partner, I wondered how race, class, color and power influenced the African- American officer’s decision to send me to jail. I wore a designer suit, drove a new car, and am significantly lighter skinned than the arresting officer. “I should have paid the ticket,” I told the white officer, assuming responsibility for my actions and understanding that while the black officer exercised power in this specific interaction, I had possibly benefitted from power in other ways not accessible to him.
I would not have been arrested if the white officer alone had cited me—not because he was white, but because he clearly lacked a need to exercise power over me. He immediately helped me from the back of the patrol car, removed my handcuffs, and allowed me to retrieve some items from my car unsupervised, commenting “you don’t look like you belong here.” His comment suggested that class perception was important. I believe that the African-American officer’s decision to arrest me was possibly influenced by my perceived class and that he was pleased to jail someone he perceived as different. His white counterpart admitted that class colored his perception, stating that I did not fit the profile of a criminal. To reduce the discussion of the Gates arrest to a discussion of race is to ignore that race is about power. We must also ask, would either Gates or I have been arrested if we were female?
Current demographic trends across the country reflect increasing class differences among people of color. The way we negotiate power inevitably changes as our roles within society change. Interactions between blacks and whites will no longer so easily be reduced to overly simplified discussions of race and racism. My arrest, like that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is an example of how power manifests complexly as race and class. If Gates’ experience was simply a result of racism, then perhaps I am the first to experience black on black racism. Either possibility seems absurd.
Berkeley resident Robert Quintana Hopkins writes about race, gender, sexuality and identity in his new book Glass Closet, published by AfroChicano Press.