When I heard that prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass., it made me proud of America. It may seem paradoxical to focus on the positive side of the preeminent scholar's public humiliation. This is, after all, a distinguished staff writer for the New Yorker, the man who helped Oprah find her roots. It may seem that there's no positive side at all. (His own neighbor, a Harvard magazine employee, didn't recognize him and called the cops. How pathetic is that?)
But last night I happened to be reading a book that put the whole incident into context, a volume that never fails to chill me: “We Charge Genocide,” a petition brought before the U.N. in 1951 that makes a very convincing case for defining the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. as a genocide. This remarkable book consists, in part, of a litany of shocking bias crimes committed against black citizens across the country — and only documented ones occurring between 1945 to 1950. A typical entry reads: “February 13 — ISAAC WOODWARD, JR., discharged from the Army only a few hours, was on his way home when he had his eyes gouged out in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town chief of police, Linwood Shull … [A]n all-white jury acquitted Shull after being out for 15 minutes.” And so on, for 50-odd hair-raising pages. Believe me, Toni Morrison couldn’t top it.