Archive for Henry Louis Gates
Colorlines has a good critique of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recent oped piece (“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”) in the New York Times by historian Barbara Ransby, Director of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at U. Illinois-Chicago. In his oped Gates makes a whitewashed argument about U.S. slavery and the slave trade being substantially the responsibility of both African elite leaders and North American whites, about this reality changing the black reparations debate, and about President Obama being uniquely able to deal with this reality. The part about the African elites is similar to arguments often made by conservative whites against reparations for black enslavement. Gates concludes his oped thus:
In President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.
Professor Ransby, however, strongly takes issue with this. She summarizes and critiques Gates:
Black and white people in the United States should now “get over” slavery because as we all know, this was not a racial thing but an economic thing. Since both Blacks and whites were culpable, the call for reparations is indeed meaningless and bereft of any moral weight. If we take Gates’ argument to its full conclusion, we might claim that it is not America or Europe, but the long suffering, impoverished, and debt-ridden nations of Africa, that should really pay reparations to Black Americans.
She then nail the central culprits:
Even though African monarchs did collaborate in the selling of Blacks bodies into slavery, what happened after that was the establishment of a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of White supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed. There was nothing African-inspired about it.
This is of course the main point, which Gates slights in his piece. The 246 years of African Americans’ North America enslavement was totally under white control, principally elite white control. The Atlantic slave trade supplying the Americas was set up and controlled entirely by Europeans. No African elites sailed boats to the Americas, nor did they profit from the 246 years of slavery-extracted labor within North America. Most from whom labor was stolen had never seen Africa, for they were born in North America. Reparations are due to African Americans mainly from this extorted and stolen labor within North America.
In addition, in my view, the place to start in making reparations to African Americans is with the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. The reason: there are a great many living African Americans who were directly harmed by the extensive, totalitarian type of Jim Crow oppression so central to the U.S. economy and polity for so many decades. In the South and some of the North.
Many of these African Americans can name who their oppressors were, and indeed give some idea of the costs, personal and monetary, that they suffered. They can name the exploitative white employers, brutal white police officers, whites in lynch mobs, and white rapists who were central to this extreme oppression. Gates does not mention reparations for Jim Crow, which is an odd and major oversight. After we calculate reasonable reparations for the damage done to many African Americans under Jim Crow, and their children and grandchildren, then we can move back to calculate the trillions in dollars and other reparations that are due to the descendants of those so extremely oppressed by the whites who ran the slavery system in North America.
Ransby minces no words at the end of her indictment of Professor Gates:
The lessons are about the self-serving role of certain Black elites, who in slavery times and now, will sell (or sell out) other Black bodies for their own gain and advancement. African royalty did it in the 1600s and 1700s. Comprador elites did it in colonial and postcolonial settings through the Global South. And certain public figures, in political, cultural and academic circles, do so today, with a kind of moral blindness and impunity that rivals the slave sellers of old. As we know, ideas have consequences.
It looks like Lucia Whalen won’t be joining the guys for a beer tonight. The White House beer party seems to be a “guy thing.” Why wasn’t Whalen invited? If you’ve been following the news about the arrest of Prof. Gates, you know that Whalen is the woman who set the incident in motion with a 911 call to Cambridge police. There are still a few questions and puzzles about this highly racialized incident.
Whalen had mostly been silent until her press conference yesterday. At that conference she again said that she never said anything racist in her 911 call and that she had been taught by her Portuguese American parents to treat everyone the same. The transcript of her call backs her up on this point, as it clearly indicates she did not suggest black men were breaking in, which means there are very serious problems with the police reports that she told them those breaking in were black. Black men are not mentioned in her call, but she does mention that one of the men possibly looks Hispanic, so she did use that racial identifier, but one not mentioned by anyone else including the police reports.
According to a Boston.com report:
The Gates quagmire began shortly after lunch on July 16 when Whalen, a 40-year-old fund-raiser for Harvard magazine, saw from her office window what appeared to be two suspicious men trying to break in to Gates’ house. According to the police report, Whalen said she “observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch” about 12:45 p.m. “She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry,” Sgt. James Crowley wrote in the police report.
Whalen’s attorney, Wendy Murphy, corrected what she and Whalen view as major errors in the police and media reports this way:
She did not know the race of the men when she called 911 because of her distance and that their bodies were turned away from her vantage point. Criticism was exacerbated when Mr. Gates challenged police to explain why they would believe “a white woman over a black man.” This statement is issued solely to correct the record and to emphasize that the woman is not racist and was acting as a responsible citizen, with appropriate concern for the safety of the community. She has worked in Cambridge for more than fifteen years, about a hundred yards from where Mr. Gates resides, and was aware of several recent break-ins in the area.
Whalen also says in her call and statements that an older woman called her attention to the Gates house, and Whalen then assisted with the 911 phone call, but had only a brief conversation with Officer Crowley. One question here is exactly how a neighbor and university colleague who made the initial 911 call failed to recognize prominent Harvard Prof. Gates in broad daylight at his Harvard house?
At the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson asked some tough questions about that police report:
So why, then, does Crowley’s official report say that Whalen told him she had seen “what appeared to be two black males with backpacks” on the porch of the Gates house? Is it Crowley’s position that Whalen is lying? Is Crowley lying? Or did the sergeant, or perhaps his dispatcher, just assume that if a break-in was taking place, the perpetrators had to be black?
Tenured radical makes an important point about how whites, including callers and police officers, often do not think about what they are doing. Whites in such settings are usually thinking out of a version of the white racial frame, and do not think about the dangers they have created and can create for black people. Indeed, white people
put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women’s activism against lynching as early as the 1930s. I have learned that while many of us believe racially integrated neighborhoods are desirable, and some of us actively seek them out, no one talks to white people about their responsibilities for reigning in the racism that inevitably follows when white and black people come into proximity with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that white people put black people into danger all the time as a result of their good intentions, and that being aware of this is a full time job. I worry, for example, every time a close friend of mine I have known since college — a major property owner in the neighborhood, with an Ivy degree, wealthy, and a football celebrity — borrows my lawn equipment, because to your average cop he is just another _________ (fill in the blank) walking down the driveway and up the street with someone else’s electric mower.
One national poll found that white respondents were much more likely to fault Gates than Crowley for the incident, but black respondents responded strongly in the opposite direction. Why is this? Retired Seattle police chief, Norm Stamper, notes why whites, who mostly have good experiences with the police, generally view them in a different way from black residents:
But if you’re a struggling black mom, for example, whose husband is serving a long prison term for simple possession of pot (when, under identical circumstances, more affluent offenders, disproportionately white, walk), and whose well-behaved male teens have been stopped and frisked repeatedly, called names and/or had guns drawn on them, you’re not so likely to have warm and fuzzy feelings toward the local PD.
Stamper then summarizes his experienced view of what may have happened, and how it could have been otherwise:
I did offer my opinion that had Gates been white he would not have been arrested. This belief was reinforced when Sgt. Leon Lasher, the imposing black officer pictured standing with Crowley and the small handcuffed prisoner on the porch of that cheery yellow home, answered a reporter’s question. Yes, he said, the outcome likely would have been different had he handled the contact with Gates. This from a man who supports his white colleague’s actions “100 percent.” The second thing we must do is strengthen police competence, and come up with a better definition of what it means to play “by the book.” See, Crowley may in fact have “followed protocol,” as Lasher maintains. But I take issue with the all-too-common practice of police officers baiting a citizen into committing an act of disorderly conduct so that he or she can arrest that citizen for… disorderly conduct. However offended Crowley may have been by Gates’s conduct inside his own home, that behavior was not a crime.
Given this veteran police view, and the issues noted above, it is more than odd that Officer Crowley is being treated as an “equal” in this little beer party (which he reportedly suggested) and not as a possible perpetrator of police racial profiling or worse. President Obama’s and others’ “let’s play nice” beer routine ignores the national black anger over chronic police malpratice such as profiling, which police malpractice is extremely widespread in all areas of the country.
Instead of focusing on the substantial data on racial profiling by the police, the mainstream media and most other public commentators are making this into a melodrama story of conflict and polarization. How about looking at the large amount of data on racist police profiling here and here and here and here, just to mention a few sources. One sign of continuing decline in the mainstream media is its failure to bother looking at social science and other important research data on the topics being debated.
A Boston police officer who sent a mass e-mail referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” has apologized, saying he’s not a racist. .. Officer Justin Barrett told a Boston television station on Wednesday night that he was sorry for the e-mail. “I regret that I used such words,” Barrett told CNN affiliate WCVB-TV. “I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist.”
The ape imagery straight out of the Thomas Jefferson’s racist frame. His lawyer says this was not meant to describe Prof. Gates himself, and his client is not racist. But of course no one is racist anymore just for operating out of that old white frame.
UPDATE 2 (August 3, 2009):
Here is an excellent article by African American author, Darryl Pinckney, who knows Gates and has experienced much racist profiling himself. He makes this point among many other good ones:
The thing about racial incidents these days is that the perpetrator usually denies that race supplied a motive for his actions, because everyone knows that racism is socially frowned upon, like smoking. Yet racism is still around; maybe more covert in some situations. It is not uncommon for a black person to be told that he or she is taking something that happened or was said the wrong way. Often the black person has no way of knowing if he or she has been, say, treated impolitely in a store or an office because of race. Maybe a clerk was just having a bad day. Think how hard it is to prove that one has been denied professional advancement because of race (or gender). Many black people have a conversation with themselves daily, about letting this or that go, about not being paranoid over every little thing. But sometimes you do know and are not in the mood to let the injustice go, even in the age of Obama. I was appalled by an article supposedly sympathetic to Gates that said he had been unwise to get angry with someone in uniform or that a professor with his skills should have calmed the situation down. Are we not frightened members of society if we recommend appeasing the police or showing respect for authority when it is undeserved?
If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.
To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.
CNN’s Don Lemon speaks with a panel about racial profiling in America. The panel includes Prof. Andra Gillespie (Emory University), Tim Wise (antiracist writer and activist) and James Andrews (social media entrepreneur). The conversation is only available in two clips from CNN, I’ll post them both. The first one here is about (4:45).
And, here’s the second part from CNN (7:36) which is where Prof. Gillespie and Tim Wise discuss the difference between ‘having a racist moment’ and working on one’s own individual issues of prejudice and racism:
We’re often critical of mainstream news coverage of racial matters, but I thought that this was a step in the right direction, even if it was all too brief and necessarily superficial. The panel seems to agree that the Gates’ arrest represents a ‘teachable moment’ in American culture. What are your thoughts?
(image from here)
News about the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates seems to be flowing out of the news-machine-spigot at full force these days. At least part of the story seems to be shifting toward Crowley, the Cambridge cop who was centrally involved in Gates’ arrest. Here, I’ll go through a few of the main links to various parts of the story, and then – as we do here – draw on some social science research to see if that can illuminate what’s going on here.
Several people are defending Crowley. Some of these defenders are not surprising, such as this blogger who sees Crowley – a racial profiling expert for the Cambridge police – as being treated unfairly because he is white. Other Crowley defenders are somewhat more surprising, such as Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African American professor at Syracuse University and often ardent critic of the racial status quo, who writes:
After my battles with Bill O’Reilly made me the most hated professor on the Syracuse University campus last year, I always thought I was the radical guy in the room. But in this case, I must encourage temperance and fairness. Whether it has killed slaves in the past or destroyed careers in the present, the mob mentality has never been good for America.
From a centrist perspective, the Christian Science Monitor has a piece called, “Gates Arrest: Racial Profiling or ‘Tempest in a Teapot,’” and the staid CSM comes down decidedly on the ‘tempest in a teapot’ side of this. The CSM emphasizes “bad behavior on both sides,” as in this quote from a representative of the Cambridge Police:
“It wasn’t Professor Gates’s best moment, and it was not the Cambridge Police Department’s best moment.”
Then, the CSM includes this line which is the heart of their argument in this article:
Law enforcement analysts are inclined to agree, suggesting that the incident may have been only a “tempest in a teapot.”
Unfortunately, the evidence from the ‘law enforcement analysts’ – one crim professor a radio talk show how and a legal blogger – is pretty thin. The evidence they glean from quote by the crim professor tend to be critical of Crowley’s actions, as in:
“The best motto for a police officer is that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” says George Kirkham, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Florida State University. “People wind up venting, and you have to let them vent.” “We are a country founded on Jeffersonian ideals, and people don’t like government in their lives,” says Professor Kirkham. “[Police] need to be aware of that.”
So, here, Kirkham is basically saying that Crowley should not have arrested Gates no matter how “tumultuous” his behavior. The key phrase here is the use of “Jeffersonian ideals.” Now, I’m assuming the ideals to which Kirkham is referring here are the ones about government not interfering in people’s lives, and not the ones that Jefferson wrotes about in Notes on the State of Virginia in which he argued for the inherent inferiority of blacks, including (presumably) Sally Hemmings, the woman he enslaved, raped, and her children by Jefferson. Still, I think Kirkham is right here, it would be a good idea to keep these latter Jeffersonian values in mind when dealing with anyone and particularly with African Americans. My point here is that even the *expert* in this case is so completely steeped in the white racial frame that he doesn’t even realize the multiple connotations of what he’s saying to this CSM reporter. And, for their part, the CSM reporters and editors never step outside the white racial frame to evaluate this case even though this is supposedly an “analysis” piece.
A better source for “law enforcement analyst” might be Lowry Heussler, who has worked on police-misconduct cases in Massachusetts, the state where the Gates arrest happened. In a post for the blog The Reality-Based Community, Heussler provides a meticulous analysis of Crowley’s actions based on Crowley’s own words (the report he wrote about the arrest):
Read Crowley’s report and stop on page two when he admits seeing Gates’s Harvard photo ID. I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then, Crowley was obligated to leave. He had identified Gates. Any further investigation of Gates’ right to be present in the house could have been done elsewhere. His decision to call HUPD seems disproportionate, but we could give him points for thoroughness if he had made that call from his car while keeping an eye on the house. Had a citizen refused to leave Gates’ home after being told to, the cops could have made an arrest for trespass.
Heussler goes on from there, offering a thoroughly devastating critique of Crowley’s actions as police – apart from the racial context – and based on Crowley’s on words. Basically, what he finds is that Crowley gets pissed off that Gates has accused him of racism, then works to escalate the situation by “inviting” Gates out onto the porch where he is arrested.
Now, to the social science. Henry Ferrell at Crooked Timber has a nice post called “Discretion and Arrest Power,” in which he discusses the relevance of Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood. Moskos, a sociologist and a CUNY professor at John Jay College, spent a year as a beat officer in Baltimore. In his book, Moskos discusses the “zone of discretion” that cops have and the ways that they try to expand their authority beyond that which they are legally authorized to do (Moskos, p. 117-118). In Moskos’ account of being Baltimore police officer (as Farrell recounts it) he both (a) uses a verbal invitation to induce the targeted individual to leave the building, and (b) then uses the attention of bystanders to generate a charge of disorderly conduct.
Crowley, for his part, maintains that he is “not a racist” and refuses to apologize. And, I think it’s quite possible that Crowley did not have any intention to racially discriminate against anyone when he showed up at the house on Ware Street responding to a call. I do, however, think that the confluence of events and factors shaped his response to the situation so that it played out in ways that are consistent with centuries of racial discrimination in this country. First, there’s the white racial frame that shaped Crowley’s view of what was happening and what kind of a “danger” Professor Gates posed. Second, there’s the “cop in the hood” mentality in which police are often forced to use their discretion to decide what to do in a situation that may seem unclear. Third, there is Crowley’s “reputation” as a “racial profiling expert” and Gates charge of “racism.” This, according to one experts’ speculation, pissed off Crowley and that’s where the escalation occurred. Now, Crowley – and his defenders – seem entrenched in the effort to shore up Crowley’s “racial innocence” and thus redeem him as a ‘good’ (read: not racist) white person.
This will, I predict, continue to be a huge news story. And, much of the coverage will be focused on Crowley and his supposed “racial innocence.” I find this a disappointing focus on this story because by making it a story about Crowley, it completely individualizes – and ultimately trivializes – the problem here. I hope that others – possibly Professor Gates leading the way – will use this incident to rerfocus our attention on efforts to change the racial inequality at the heart of our criminal justice system, and indeed, at the heart of our society.
Last night, President Barack Obama answered a question about the arrest of Professor Gates during a press conference about health care. The President said that police acted “stupidly” and despite racial progress blacks and Hispanics are still singled out unfairly for arrest. Here’s the short clip (2:10) in case you missed it:
While it’s hard to imagine any of the previous presidents speaking out in this way about a “police matter,” the fact that President Obama would speak out should not, in fact, be that surprising. For Obama, racial profiling was a major issue for him as legislator in Illinois. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial profiling.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell provides an excellent analysis in The Nation both about Gates’ place among black intellectuals in the U.S. prior to this and about the significance of Gates’ arrest for what she calls “the post-racial project.”
Yet, for all this outrage (I believe I referred to it as a ‘tsunami of outrage’ originally, and it is certainly turning into that), James Crowley, the cop who arrested Gates, says he won’t apologize. And, lots of other white folks are lining up to defend him (starting with comment #8 at that link). This could get even more interesting.
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.