Arriving home after a recent trip to China and struggling to get into his own home in Cambridge because of a jammed door, esteemed scholar of African American Studies and Harvard Professor, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr., was arrested by police. According to one report (h/t @BlackInformant for a couple of these links), this incident began when someone alerted police:
A witness, 40-year-old Lucia Whalen of Malden, had alerted the cops that a man was “wedging his shoulder into the front door” at Gates’ house “as to pry the door open,” police reported.
None of the reports I’ve read online describe Ms. Whalen’s race, or why someone from Malden was doing calling the cops about a man entering his own home in Cambridge, but apparently it was her call that began this series of events. Here’s what happened next, according to several reports, this one from HuffingtonPost:
By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.
“Why, because I’m a black man in America?” Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.
Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him,” the officer wrote.
Gates said he turned over his driver’s license and Harvard ID – both with his photos – and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He said he then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, Gates said in a statement released by his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, on a Web site Gates oversees, TheRoot.com.
As this story has begun to get out on the web in the last 12-24 hours, it seems to be touching off a tsunami of outrage at the persistence of racial inequality in the U.S., even for one of the most well-known and accomplished scholars. If this could happen to Skip Gates, at his home in Cambridge, Mass., it does not speak well for the state of racial progress in the country as a whole. As Rev. Al Sharpton said, “If this can happen at Harvard, what does it say about the rest of the country?”
But, make no mistake, this outrage is not universally shared. Almost as soon as this story broke, the undertow of white backlash to the reality of racism began to counter the outrage. For example, Bruce Maiman, writing at The Examiner, contends that the Cambridge police were just doing their job, responding to a call about a break-in to a home, and that Prof. Gates escalated the situation. Here’s Maiman:
So I ask you: Who’s the person who caused this encounter? Professor Gates is now being represented by another distinguished law professor from Harvard, Charles Ogletree, and they’re going to claim that this cop was racist and mishandled this situation because the fact that a black male was involved.
I don’t see any racism, do you? Tell me where? No names were called. Nobody was hassled or pushed around. Legitimate requests were made and cooperation was not forthcoming from a man, Henry Louis Gates, who know better than most people on this planet what happens when you escalate a confrontation with the police. But he does it anyway.
Is there racial profiling in America? Sure there is. But if you justify the behavior of Henry Louis Gates because other black men have been hassled by other police officers unfairly and thus you assume every black man has a right to a chip on his shoulder every time he meets a cop, you are asking for trouble.
This doesn’t appear to be racism. It sounds to me like a colossal case of extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of a distinguished African American historian who happens to teach at Harvard, and who certainly should’ve known better.
Here, Maiman’s interpretation of these events is completely steeped in the white racial frame. He says, “I don’t see any racism” and, of course, he can’t from the WRF. He only sees a black man “with a chip on his shoulder,” not the racist behavior of the cop. Maiman further diminishes Gates by referring to him as someone “who happens to teach at Harvard” and questions his judgment because he “certainly should’ve known better.” Known better than to what, try and enter his own home? Maiman is simply wrong on the facts here, and wrong on his interpretation of the events. Maiman is like other whites, as philosopher Charles W. Mills writes, “unable to see the world he has created,” unable to see how his not-seeing-racism contributes to the problem of racial inequality.
The research on the racial inequality in policing, arrest, and incarceration in the U.S. is starkly clear (as we’ve recounted on this blog hundreds of times): those who are black or brown, particularly men, are much more likely to be stopped, frisked, harrassed, arrested and convicted than whites. And, this inequality in criminal ‘justice’ is part of a larger pattern of racial inequality that operates systematically throughout U.S. institutions. The irony, for those that have followed Gates’ scholarship closely, is that he has tended to downplay the significance of institutional racism in the contemporary U.S. Reports are that Gates’ is “shaken” by this experience, as anyone would be. This is a horrifying, and yet all too common, experience for black men in this country. Perhaps Gates’ next volume will be called “Harvard Professor, Still a Suspect.”
More good sociological analysis on this case (and others) from City College Prof. Dumi Lewis, here.
Update 12:07pmET: Charges Against Prof. Gates Dropped, according to one report. Do click the link to check out 1) the photo of Gates on his own front porch in hand-cuffs and 2) the racist comments that follow.