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Professor Gates: Racial Profiling Victim?

July 21, 2009

Here we go again: just two weeks after the Great Philadelphia Swim Club Fiasco, another racially tinged incident pops up in the headlines. And once again we’re looking at a minor media riot, rife with accusations of white racism.

Here’s the story. Distinguished African American Harvard professor and alpha-intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by police in Cambridge, Mass., after breaking into his own home. Turns out the door was jammed, so Gates and his driver had to force it open. An eyewitness in the famously progressive college town promptly called the police and reported that “two black males with backpacks” were trying to “force entry” into the well-kept two-story house. Uh-oh.

By the time the police arrived, Gates was already inside. The investigating officer announced that he was responding to a report of a break-in and asked him for ID. Whereupon the irate scholar retorted: “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” and refused to step outside. Even when Gates flashed his driver’s license and Harvard ID, the policeman continued to question him. At this point Gates grew more irate.

“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 repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the cop, then followed him outside.

You probably know how it ended: Prof. Gates was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge, for what the police termed  “loud and tumultuous behavior.” They dragged him down to the precinct, took the obligatory mug shots and ordered him to face arraignment on August 26. Cambridge police have subsequently dropped the charges, but the story continues to swirl and pick up debris like a mid-sized tornado.

Public opinion is split down the middle, of course, with the left crying racism and the right answering “no big deal.” Rev. Sharpton has already stepped into the fray, and we know that means trouble.

Was Prof. Gates a victim of racial profiling, or were the police simply doing their duty? Naturally, the answer lies somewhere in the lonely middle ground that most ideologues are too biased (or stubborn, or lazy) to explore. Let me explain.

If I see two men attempting to break into a house, it doesn’t matter whether they’re black, white, or Japanese sumo wrestlers: I might be inclined to tip off the police as a precaution. Unlike the Cambridge tipster (who I suspect is an otherwise enlightened, educated liberal, since Cambridge is populated almost entirely by enlightened, educated liberals), I probably wouldn’t have cited the race of the men breaking down the door unless the police asked me directly. The genetic background of the intruders should be a non-issue; the real issue is what’s happening to the door — and the intentions of the men forcing it open. Score one for the Gates team.

On the other hand, if police arrived at my broken-down door and simply stated that they were responding to reports of a forced entry, I probably wouldn’t have flipped them the race card as my first move. Granted, Gates might have been fatigued from his long journey home, and as an African American he was undoubtedly more sensitive than most to the racial nuances of the incident. But a brilliant man should be a little wiser. Score one for the police.

Once Gates flashed his ID, the police should have responded by saying, “All right, we were just making sure.” Then they should have excused themselves politely and left the premises. Instead, they kept questioning Prof. Gates. (All they had to do was compare the address on the ID with the address they were visiting; it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to figure that out.) In short, I would have been annoyed with the police, too. Score: Gates 2, Police 1.

Convinced that he was being singled out on the basis of race, Prof. Gates pressed the issue and proceeded to make an ass 0f himself. By asking for the officer’s ID, threatening repercussions, and storming outside the house in hot pursuit, Gates had to know that he was upping the ante. Sure, he was tired and ticked off, but so are a lot of folks who don’t mouth off to the cops. No excuse. Score: Gates 2, Police 2.

Did Gates deserve to be hauled down to the police station and put through the wringer like a common thug? Hard to say: we have no videotape of the final moments before his arrest. Did the arresting officer feel threatened by the slightly built 58-year-old scholar? Should the police have given him a free pass because he was a distinguished professor at Harvard? Would Gates have sassed a black cop who asked him to produce ID? Would a white Prof. Gates have been arrested? Or would police have been more likely to arrest a white Prof. Gates, given the hair-trigger racial sensitivities of our culture? Anything we add here would amount to sheer speculation… and so the score remains knotted at 2-2.

I can understand the resentment black Americans feel over racial profiling. I’m just not convinced the Gates case was a classic example. It’s not as if police stopped him simply for hanging out in a privileged, mostly white enclave like Cambridge. Even Gates’s sympathizers have to admit that breaking down a door looks faintly incriminating. 

The eminent professor should have understood that much. He could have nipped the incident in the bud by promptly producing his ID; instead, his first response was to spout inflammatory racial invective. The police, for their part, could have calmed the agitated professor by walking away once they ascertained that their suspect was, indeed, the rightful occupant of the house. They didn’t, for reasons known only to them.

I’d hate to think that Gates — a reasonable liberal literary scholar with genuine respect for European as well as African cultural traditions — will be radicalized by his close encounter with the Cambridge police. I’d hate to think that other moderate-to-liberal blacks might become radicalized, too. But simple misunderstandings can lead to acrimony, especially given the history of race in America.

I think the wisest and most profound statement on race relations was uttered by a black man with no pretensions to scholarly distinction. His name was Rodney King, and his heartfelt plea still rings true, even in the Age of Obama: “Can’t we all just get along?”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Guy Bauman permalink
    July 22, 2009 1:43 pm

    As someone whose lived in Cambridge I know that the police here are not racist but instead know that most crimes are done by black people. So why shoudent they question Gates?

  2. Rick Bayan permalink*
    July 22, 2009 6:03 pm

    That’s called racial profiling, and it’s a pretty sticky issue. I believe in demographic profiling; i.e., if most violent crime is committed by young black males from poor neighborhoods, you don’t target 58-year-old upper-middle-class black males. Gates’s race shouldn’t even have been a factor in this case; the police were notified of a break-in, and they responded, as they should have. Gates made the mistake of playing the race card, and the police made the mistake of questioning Gates after they already knew he belonged in the house. Both sides were at fault.

  3. Steve permalink
    July 23, 2009 12:35 pm

    Score 1 for Gates because the person who called the police mentioned the race of the two men pushing in the door? Why does that count against the police? What are they supposed to do, ignore the call? Final score, police 2, gates 1.

  4. July 23, 2009 12:55 pm

    It doesn’t count against the police, it just lends a little credence (emphasis on “a little”) to Gates’s claim of racial profiling. I’m sure the police routinely ask for the race of any suspect, simply to make identification easier. That’s not racism. But if the neighbor who phoned the police went hysterical over the presence of “two black males” on the porch, that would tip the balance to the Gates team… just on this one issue, you understand. Gates had no business mouthing off to the cop when asked for his ID.

  5. July 23, 2009 1:20 pm

    If he didn’t flip out, he’d never have gotten arrested. The initial reports made it sound like a case of automatic arrest of a random black guy, but it turns out he freaked out and anyone who similarly freaked out would have gotten arrested under those circumstances. Cops are used to controlling situations; their instinct necessary for survival is not to allow suspects and citizens to take it away.

  6. July 24, 2009 11:30 am

    I’ve read Gates’s own account of the incident. He says the cop first told him to step out onto the front porch; Gates answered, “No, I will not.” First mistake. Why was he defiant? Because, Gates said, “I don’t think he would have said that if I was a white person.” Oh really? So Gates had a chip on his shoulder from the outset. All he had to do was cooperate and show his ID, and I’m sure all would have been forgiven.

    By the time Gates DID show his ID, the cop was understandably annoyed by his hostility. I’m sure he would have been just as annoyed if Gates had been white. As Gates continued to flip out, the cop warned him three times before finally arresting him.

    So the police definitely didn’t act “stupidly,” as Obama insisted. (Bad choice of words, Prez.) I think Sgt. Crowley might have done a little more to defuse the situation. He could have said something like, “Sorry if you’re offended, but we had to make sure this was your house. Just doing our duty.” But who knows what really happened there to push both guys over the edge? Wish we had a videotape.

  7. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 9, 2010 4:38 am

    Cops get to hassle annoying pricks, it’s listed under perks on the application… As a professor familiar with past racial profiling, he should have known not to be a dick to the law. Gates -1, cop ~1 by default.

  8. July 22, 2016 9:42 am

    It is interesting to read this with a 6 year intermission.

    “The police, for their part, could have calmed the agitated professor by walking away once they ascertained that their suspect was, indeed, the rightful occupant of the house. They didn’t, for reasons known only to them.”

    It was at this point his being black made a difference. Had he been white, the cops would have left promptly. His being black was the only thing that made the cops be more suspicious.

    If you were black, you would understand…and feel differently.

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