THE BLOG

Gates Forgot to Pay His Skin Tax

Aug 23, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

It must have hit him like a hard slap in his face. A sucker punch in the gut.

Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., world-renowned, globe-trotting professor, public intellectual, occasional New York Times/New Yorker columnist, multi-published author and academic, multi-media star, and FOO (Friend of Oprah) treated just like any ordinary brotha. But that's exactly what happened to him a few days ago when a "white" cop cuffed and arrested him in his own home.

Welcome back to the real world Skip. You had not paid your Skin Tax for years, so it was way past due... With penalties.

Skin Tax is a phrase I coined a few years ago that I think aptly applies to Gates Gate, where the prolific Professor Gates, the head of the African-American Studies Department at America's most prestigious institute of higher learning, Harvard, was forced to make the perp walk in front of his Cambridge neighbors.

Here's a brief definition:

Skin Tax n: The extra physical, psychic, emotional and economic surcharge Americans not immediately identified as "white" must pay.

But the minute the "white" cop told him to step outside, he seems to have suddenly started to grasp his infraction.

The NPR story I heard reported him as asking something like, "Why? Because I'm a Black man in America?" I'll give the Skipper the benefit of doubt and assume it was a rhetorical question. Yes, the cop must have thought. "Because you're still a Black man in America, no matter how many PhDs, JJDs, PDQs, etc. in front or back of your name. Fact is, the only letters that count are N.I.G.G.E.R... no matter how many degrees you earn, books you write, PBS TV specials you front, or Oprah shows you appear on."

In fact, I had just posted my SkinTax: The High Cost of Not Being Born 'White' in America book cover on my Buy The Cover blog when I heard the news. Gates' Skin Taxes seem to have been way overdue. The cop was only doing his job by reminding him.

Although I admire and respect Dr. Gates, I do think he was guilty of not realizing he has to continue to pay his Skin Tax no matter how high he climbs in America. The fact that he now reportedly plans to focus some of his prodigious clout and resources on the penal system and Black American incarceration hints at his cluelessness before his graphic reminder. I have the sneaking suspicion that had he not been who he is, there's a good chance he would have been beaten, shot or even killed without even the local paper noticing. Such incidents happen so often in America, it usually doesn't qualify as news.

Even President Obama, who makes a habit of not mentioning the Skin Tax, admits that he pays his every time he tries to catch a cab in Chicago (especially when he's not wearing one of his Hart, Schaffner and Marx suits).

Even my most progressive "white" friends play down the differences in our American experience because of skin color. The few who admit to them do so with abstract, academic allusions to "white skin privilege". One "white" guy, Tim Wise, has made be a pretty good career out of fessing up to the inconveniences of not being considered "white" in the USA.

But few "whites" seem willing to make the logical -- at least to me -- next step and push to do something about it. They seem to just want brownie points (no pun intended) for being hip/honest enough to not deny it. Even other minority groups like gays, Jews, "white" Hispanics, etc. usually fall suddenly silent (or color-blind) on the issue.

Until a committed multicolored/cultured group of Americans make the abolishment of the centuries-old Skin Tax a political issue, our nation is doomed to continue to welsh on its most basic and revolutionary founding promise -- of equality under the law.

But, like the prodigal son's daddy, instead of questioning where he's been all this time, I just say, "Welcome back to Black World in America Dr. Gates".