"They don't know that you teach at Harvard when you're at Fenway Park," my friend Harry Edwards used to say about living in Boston in the late '70s. Back then, Boston did more than its share to earn a bad reputation among black professionals.
Today, Massachusetts has an African-American governor. The Celtics no longer go out of their way to make sure they have white players. Black fans try as hard as everyone else to find a ticket to Fenway.
And every black I know, male or female, will tell you that black men are treated differently by the police than white men every day of the week.
Why wouldn't they be?
Police departments look very different than they did 20 or 30 years ago, more like the communities they police. You see more women and more minorities, and far more emphasis on community involvement, community policing, and building trust.
All of that is definitely better. Tensions have been reduced. Police can do their jobs better as part of the community than from the outside looking in.
But none of that matters very much so long as three-quarters of the inmates are black and Hispanic men.
Assume you're a police officer and you get a report of a possible break-in, you go to the house and find an angry black man.
It might be his house. It might not be. Probably he won't kill you. Probably.
Would it have been different if it were my home? Sure. Not long ago, the police came to my house because a neighbor behind me saw someone (my handyman) going in my backdoor. Everyone couldn't have been nicer. I wasn't angry. I would've offered coffee if I'd made some. There was certainly no reason for the police to be afraid, once they saw me. All very pleasant.
I don't blame professor Gates for reacting to the confrontation with all the anger and hostility you build up after years of putting up with slights, confronting stereotypes, trying to tear down brick walls gracefully, while all the time being viewed as someone who might have been wearing a prison jumpsuit in the not-so-distant past. But his anger was directed at the wrong target. I wish Gates and other black leaders would get mad not at the police who behave rationally but at the young, and not so young, hoodlums and hooligans who make it rational to treat black men differently.
There's a great song in "Avenue Q" about how "everyone's a little bit racist sometime." We all are. An afternoon in the Loehmann's dressing room will prove that, in a multilingual chorus. But the most pernicious racism, in the long run, is the kind that is rooted in undeniable reality. The challenge is not to change our attitudes, but to change the reality. Doing that will take more than a few beers on the White House lawn.