Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Profiled by Police and Neighbor
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1998, after receiving a National Humanities Medal.
OK. I don’t get this. Gates’ only crime seems to be that he was angry about being asked for identification inside of his own home. He did, however, do as he was asked. So, why was he arrested? No violence. What is the problem?
The problem is mismatched expectations. The cop did not expect to see a black man in such a nice house, nor do (some) cops like being told “no” by anyone, but most especially by black people. The cop felt the need to “put Gates in his place” and make a show of power even though no crime had occurred. This arrest was totally without merit. The thing is… Gates will be OK. He has a reputation and an established position in life. But, this kind of thing can happen to anyone and often there isn’t any recourse for it. People are simply “put in their place.” It never makes the papers.
The news establishment and the blogosphere are buzzing with emotions ranging from outrage to curiosity at the apparent interrogation and arrest of African American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
It seems that a neighbor saw Gates and his driver attempting to unjam the door of his home and decided to call the cops. Two Black men, one of whom was a middle-aged guy in a sweater and using a cane must have looked like a burglars to Lucia Whalen, a Harvard fundraiser and the neighbor who reported this “burglary-in-progress.” There is little doubt in my mind that Professor Gates was wrongfully arrested. I believe that the Cambridge police acted too swiftly based simply on Whalen’s highly questionable account.
Many in the blogosphere have opined that Gates was racially profiled. The most disturbing part of this, and it is something that we all have to deal with as people of African descent, is that profiling by civilians like Whalen can result in such dire consequences. When Whalen reported Gates and his driver (he was returning from a trip abroad), she did not see her neighbor and a companion. In her mind, Gates and the driver were just a pair of suspicious Black males.
In the coming weeks, much of this troubling incident will focus on the interaction between Gates and the Cambridge police officers who entered his home. I believe that the media would be remiss not to focus at least some of their attention on Lucia Whalen, the woman who initially called 911. Her racism was the catalyst that put all of these other events in motion.
When I was a professor at the University of Oregon, located in Eugene, a city with a tiny Black population (less than 2 percent of the overall population), an African American faculty member — the director of the gospel choir — was harrassed by the police twice, each time after being reported as a Black man behaving suspiciously by white neighbors and residents. Eventually this kind and talented gentleman who was beloved by students left his job and the area. He no longer felt safe or welcome in the community.
As we continue to focus on racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, we must also begin to interrogate how those agencies deal with the racial profiling by white and other non-Black civilians. Until this problem is addressed, every non-Black person in America holds the power of freedom or incarceration over people of African descent; and Black people have no recourse. We can’t even get angry and loud about the injustice of being unfairly interrogated. That was, after all, what Gates was arrested for. He got loud and angry (non-violently) about being arrested, and he accused the police of harrassing him because of his race. They called for backup and they arrested him. The Lucia Whalen’s of the world have all the power, it seems.
And so it remains open season on Black people, as it has always been. If your neighbor all of a sudden forgets that she lives near a Black person, and if she then calls 911, and if you get angry at the police officers at the suggestion that you must show them I.D. in order to prove you belong in your own home (simply because a non-Black person says that you don’t belong there), then you can be arrested. They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As long as the Lucia Whalen’s of the world continue to see Black people as little more than suspicious and unwelcome, racism will reign.
You can read about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the following websites, some of which include links to the police report in this case:
Harvard Professor Jailed; Officer Is Accused of Bias, The New York Times
Skip Gates Arrested for Breaking and Entering, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Harvard Professor Gates Arrested at Cambridge Home (w/link to police report), The Boston Globe
Posted by Ajuan Mance