There is nothing new about the racism as cancer metaphor and I could even be charged as being trite by even going there. There is a perspective on this metaphor that I don’t usually see and I wanted to examine that today.
My wife’s girlfriend is a cancer survivor, cancer free for 10 years. Her course of treatment included the usual combo of chemotherapy and radiation, the latter of which can really play games with your cellular biology and set you up for other cancers down the road. Recently, she found a bruise on her breast which she couldn’t trace back to any particular cause. She immediately thought the worst and got a mammogram and sonogram as soon as she could. The blood tests and “grams” laid her fears to rest. The bruise was simply, a bruise.
Cancer survivors, because of their history, no matter how healthy they might be today, live under the cloud of a potential recurrence. For the more paranoid of them, any irregularity sends off alarms.
And so it is with racism. The history of racism, not just in this country but around the world, raises doubts about the true nature of the conflicts we find ourselves in. The recent case of Henry Louis Gates Jr, a professor at Harvard brings this problem front and center. In a world without racism, this is the way the scenario would have played out:
Woman sees man trying to break into a house. With no racial bias whatsoever, she calls the police, never thinking that the man might be locked out of his own house. The police arrive to find the man inside the house and they begin to interrogate. Because this is a world without racism, the man completely understands why the way he entered his own house might have looked suspicious. He gladly offers the policeman proof of residency and then he and the policeman have a good chuckle about the misunderstanding.
Now let’s replay the same scenario in a world with racism:
White woman sees no reason why a black man should be trying to jimmy his way into a house in a predominantly white neighborhood so she calls the police. The policeman arrives on the scene and based on his experience with a large number of black criminals, he assumes the worst. The black man, having experienced discrimination in the past, assumes the worst of the policeman. His hackles go up at the very thought that his belonging in this neighborhood should even be questioned. He shows the policeman his identification but he does so with an attitude. He’s angry. Based on his experience, he should be. The policeman, who faces insolent thugs on a regular basis, has a visceral reaction to the black man’s anger. Before you know it, the black man is in cuffs on his way to the police station, not for breaking and entering but for “disturbing the peace”.
Look at the variables at play here. The woman who made the 911 call may or may not have been making a racially based assessment. Gates could have assumed the best of the police officer and had a chuckle with him. Let’s face it, anyone trying to break into a house looks suspicious. Had Gates reacted with a laugh, would he have wound up arrested? Had the police officer not had more than his share of run-ins with nasty perps (of any race) would he have been so prone to arrest Gates?
One commentator said that there was no way a man as famous as Gates could have been arrested without racial bias. Well for starters, Gates is only famous among intellectuals. The average joe has no idea who Henry Louis Gates is … hell, the average joe can’t name the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. The only thing we know for sure about this incident is that it was one big misunderstanding. Gates’ intent was misunderstood by the 911 caller. The policeman’s intent may have been misunderstood by Gates. Gates’ reaction may have been misunderstood by the police officer. The true intent of all the participants was colored by this cloud of racism that hangs over our world.
That is the true sad consequence of racism. We never know from one day to the next when a bruise is a malignant tumor or when a bruise is just a bruise.