Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Police in "Post-Racial" America





[Brandon M. Terry is a doctoral student at Yale University in Political Science and African American Studies. He is also a graduate of Harvard where he received an AB in Government and African and African American Studies, and studied under Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.]

This past Thursday, the renowned Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, was reminded that sometimes, there's just one.

It is the way that his white neighbor, Lucia Whalen, looked at him as he stood on his porch with his luggage, attempting to nudge his jammed front door open. That look that somehow confuses a nearly sixty year old bespectacled professor with a blue blazer who cannot walk without the aid of a cane, as a crafty black burglar practicing his illicit deeds at 12:30 PM in the afternoon. Likely imagining herself as some courageous vigilante protecting the sanctity of her exclusive neighborhood to the unending praise of her grateful neighbors, she instead must bear the ignominious title of "the white lady who called the cops on 'Skip' Gates'" from dinner party to dinner party like a Scarlet K-K-K .

It is the way that Officer James Crowley, who responded to Ms. Whalen's misguided vigilance, looked at the MacArthur fellowship winner standing in his own foyer, as if to make humiliatingly literal the W.E.B. Du Bois lament from The Souls of Black Folk, "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?" Gates, understandably exhausted from the return flight from China he had just taken, responded to the officer's insistent questioning of his identity with frustration -- but did indeed prove his ownership of the residence and right to be there.

One cannot help but be reminded, thinking of Professor Gates' home, where photographs of he and Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Nelson Mandela must have looked down at plenty of black men from their places on the walls, of the Dave Chappelle routine where white officers assault a black man in his living room. Proud of their "top-notch" police work, they conclusively proclaim, "Apparently, this n----r broke in and hung up pictures of his family everywhere. An open and shut case."

To his minuscule credit, Officer Crowley's report claims that he did realize it was Gates' home early into the incident. But to what hopefully is his eternal regret, instead of leaving the situation immediately once the crime he was called in for was proven to be a mistake, Crowley continued to exchange harsh words with Gates and unnecessarily radio for backup. The officer then demanded that Professor Gates step out of his home, and in front of a gathering crowd of neighbors and onlookers, a man who was one of TIME's 25 most influential Americans in 1997, was arrested for "disorderly conduct."

This charge, always unfailingly ambiguous, is easily recognized by many blacks as an offense that is not in any legal code, but still manages to elicit punishment from authority daily: failure of a black to show proper deference to a white police officer. Gates' refusal to be humiliated in his own home and insistence on calling the incident what it was -- racial profiling -- was more than anything, a direct challenge to the fragile hierarchy of superiority and propriety that Officer Crowley attempted to enforce. The war of words between Crowley and Gates was a contest about dignity, imbued with the intricacies of hundreds of years of domination and deference between white and black, felt most acutely in the rituals of policing and criminal justice.

Arguably the most profound existential dilemma that racism presents to those that are confronted with it is what could be called an "utter substitutability." In its most relentless form, it is the wholesale indifference to human individuality. It seeks to erase our singularity in the pursuit of some gain, whether it be material, psychological, emotional, or political. It is the terrifying reality that sometimes, in the course of a police investigation, criminal trial, act of violence, or discriminatory practice, any black person can stand in for any other, and be made to bear the burden for all.

The singular promise of the Barack Obama era, even if his health care, education, and economic stimulus plans are unsuccessful, is that it signals what is a decisive shift in what racism means for black life. The truth of the matter is that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will be fine. The event undoubtedly is traumatic and will take a psychic toll on him, his colleagues, and his students -- who must certainly be wrestling with a deep unsettling of their sense of belonging in a place like Cambridge -- but the consequences of this incident will be limited. Beyond his own personal courage and resilience, Gates' counsel, the esteemed law professor Charles Ogletree, has already seen the charges dropped. Moreover, Gates' celebrity ensured that his case was watched with close scrutiny by global media, black activists, and intellectual elites of all backgrounds. Someone like Gates does not remain "substitutable" for long anymore.

But if we can step back and see how easily this happened to someone like Gates, arguably the most famous academic in the country, it should encourage us to be more vigilant about the toll that continuing racial disparities in law enforcement are taking on blacks, particularly the working class and poor, in America. The disproportionate policing of amorphous criminal statutes like "disorderly conduct" and "disobeying the lawful order of a police officer" have served to introduce thousands of otherwise law-abiding people into the criminal justice system. This puts undue stress and costs on police forces and communities, undermining the capacity to stem crime at its roots. When applied to juveniles in particular, this type of policing only stigmatizes and alienates youth, exposing them further to deleterious influences that ultimately encourage them to turn away from school and legitimate employment.

To make matters worse, this expansively punitive penal system fuels employer discrimination against blacks. A seminal experimental study by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager shows that even black men without criminal records receive fewer callbacks for entry-level employment than whites with criminal records. One can only expect this discrimination to expand far beyond employment when criminal court proceedings are instantly available online in most states, and some non-violent convictions are grounds to deny students access to federal funding.

These are not the stories that make headlines in news outlets from CNN to TMZ. There are not Harvard lawyers on retainer to expunge their records and win them noelle prosequi judgments. Al Sharpton is not offering to stand at their arraignments, and student activists are not chomping at the bit to pressure their arresting officers. Instead, a nation turns aside in an indifference built sturdily upon received "wisdoms" of race and class, ignoring a mountain of evidence about the catastrophic isolation of an increasing swath of Americans. All, of course, while at the same time applauding themselves for a "post-racial" politics that spends more time admonishing aspiring rappers than criticizing disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, public school funding disparities, and overcrowded prisons.

These are the type of people who are confined, often for the duration of their lives, to that one way of looking at a black man Gates experienced again for a brief moment. In the just outrage we have summoned in defense of this brilliant scholar, it is fitting testimony to his life's work that we should give voice to their plight as well.


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list