Remakes, Remixes, and Reruns: Another View of the Gates Arrest

Why the Henry Louis Gates incident seems like the same old storyline with new players.

tv watcherRemakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.

You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.

We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.

The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.

I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.

Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.

Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.

Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.

Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.

Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.

I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.

Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.

If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.

About the author, Jimmy McGee

James McGee III is the founder and president of The Bitumen Group, Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm. Jimmy works with companies, ministries, schools, and churches in areas of strategic planning, ethnic diversity, and organizational well-being. A former director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, he is a lifelong learner, committed to exploring how communities who love God can welcome different ethnic groups and cultures.
  1. This is an interesting editorial, but I’m not sure what you want me to think. Am I supposed to feel sympathetic for Gates, upset with him over being too snotty, mad at the criminal justice system in general? You’ve got lots of threads going on here. Oh, is that the point?

  2. Frankly, I’m ready for us to move on, but I fear we’re going to have to keep talking about this “Gates-gate” thing until after the boys have their beer at the White House.

  3. I think Colin Powell has made the most thoughtful and humble comments on this incident. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32197646/ns/us_news-race_and_ethnicity/

  4. The news about the Gates’ incident has unfortunately been drawn out. Racial profiling among Black and Latino men has become common place in our community. A similar incident happen at my home two years ago, and the police drew their weapons on my son. We never received an invitation to have a beer on the lawn of the white house. More importantly, i know I could not dare react like Prof. Gates because the risks of harm on my son or myself.
    As a note, I was at the birthday part for C.T. Vivian, who was hit in the mouth by Sheriff Jim Clark in the sixties, Comedian Dick Gregory said he should have been invited at the white house for a beer.
    Yes, I agree that the Colin Powell reaction to the incident was appropriate. However, will we see any adjustments with the way police interact with Black and Latino men who don’t have the credentials and status of Prof. Gates? That’s what is really important, and germane to the brother on the street.
    The metaphor of reruns was my attempt to site this is a very common practice that happens regularly. Just mark your calendar when it happens again.