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Jul. 22 2009 - 9:11 am | 105 views | 5 recommendations | 29 comments

Gatesgate: Racism 101

skip-gatesHarvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in Cambridge last week for disorderly conduct. The charges have since been dropped, but the arrest happened after Professor Gates was accused of breaking into his own house.

By way of full disclosure I should say that I’ve met Professor Gates, and while I don’t know him personally I consider him to be one of the best writers and thinkers in America. He is the embodiment of dignity.

The story that both Gates and the police agree about is such a classic instance of racism that it would look pedestrian if Spike Lee put the scene in one of his movies.

According to multiple reports, Gates arrived home after a trip to find his front door jammed. With the help of a cab driver (a dark skinned person of unknown ethnicity) the two men attempted to force the door open. Serendipitously, a white lady happened to be driving by in another cab and observed “two black males with backpacks… trying to force entry.” Notwithstanding the fact that this apparent break was happening in broad daylight, the white lady still called the cops.

Anyway, the cops showed up, Gates was annoyed, … Gates got arrested for disorderly conduct, the charges were dropped.

Some people want more facts before they determine whether or not Professor Gates was a victim of racism. We’ve been covering the story on Above the Law, and some of our commenters resist the racist charge. These people want to know precisely what happened inside Gates’s house between the arresting officer and the professor. But this is a prima facie case of racial profiling, regardless of what happened inside Gates’s house. Asking Gates to explain his actions after the point where the police accused him of breaking into his own house without any probable cause misses the point and is borderline offensive.

This is racism 101, and it’s important for people to understand that. If we want to live in a “post-racial” society, the answer is not to explain away obvious incidents of racism like we have here. If we want to progress, we must learn from these incidents, not excuse them.

With that in mind, let me make it very obvious why the cops – and the white lady who called them in the first place – need to go back to tolerance school before they can claim their post-racial Obama prize.

Here are two important points to remember when assessing the situation:

1) The White Lady Was A Raving Idiot. There is no “good Samaritan exception” for this woman. Look at the detail she was able to give the cops: black men, with backpacks (!), attempting to force an entry. But here are some other facts that a reasonably intelligent, non-racist person might have also observed and considered before calling the cops.

A) The potential crime took place in broad daylight. Do you know many (any) criminals that cruise around well-to-do Cambridge in the middle of the day looking for houses to rob? Even in that unlikely scenario, wouldn’t the would-be criminal be using some kind of lockpick device instead of just trying to break the door down with their bare hands? Not only was this lady prepared to believe that there are black people casing Cambridge waiting to break into houses, she evidently also believes that black people are really, really stupid when committing crimes.

B) There was a cab right there, lady. Right there! Seriously, did she think it was a “getaway cab?” Whether the cabbie dropped Gates off on the street in front of his house or in the driveway, the cab should have been clearly visible to anyone bothering to look. So now instead of two black “prowlers” skulking around with backpacks, we’ve got two black people on a porch, with a running cab nearby carrying – oh what is the word – luggage. Still look like a break-in to you?

C) Did she offer to help? I consider myself neighborly, even though I live in New York City. I’ve been mugged and I’ve had my home burglarized (while living in Cambridge no less). Since then, I’ve become pretty mindful of protecting my property. But when I see a strange person loitering outside my building, or on my floor, I don’t as a rule keep walking while I press the panic button and wait for an NYPD SWAT team to descend upon my location. Instead I say “can I help you?” You know, the common verbal signal of shared community interests that employees at McDonalds have mastered.

In this lady’s situation, a simple “hey” or “yo” would have sufficed. If the men were really in the middle of a criminal act, the vocalization would probably have sent them running. Since they were not criminals, they probably would have said “Hello there. Can you give me a hand here? I’m locked out.” The ability to communicate with strangers before jumping into conflict is one of the things that separate human beings from wild dogs. Maybe if Gates had been liberally urinating all over his property, the lady and the cops would have been able to “sense” what was happening before jumping to conclusions?

Was the white lady too afraid of these men to risk verbal communication with them? Why? Are octogenarian, bespectacled black men like Gates inherently dangerous? It was the middle of the day. She was in a cab. Was she afraid that the black men would run her down with their superior athletic skills and then suck her out of the small opening in the window with their huge and powerful lips?

I understand that some people want to cast the white woman as a good neighbor. Some think she was just trying to be helpful and vigilant in a world where crime does happen. But she wasn’t being a good neighbor, she was being a racist neighbor. She didn’t call the cops just because the men were black. I’m sure if there were two black men standing on Gates’s porch holding cardboard signs begging for food, she wouldn’t even have noticed them. Instead she called the cops because the men’s blackness prevented her from thinking like a rational adult.

(Note: I’ve been quietly writing this on a train from D.C. back to New York. There was a white gentleman sitting next to me, rudely reading over my shoulder until a few sentences ago. He just suddenly got up and moved to another aisle seat, 3 rows away from me, to sit next to what appears to be another total stranger – albeit a stranger with fairer skin than mine. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the “huge and powerful lips” line that spooked him. I’ll make sure I blow him a kiss if he’s still there when I disembark. )

2) The Cops Were Insulting And Stupid Too. I’ve had my brushes with the Cambridge police department. I’ve always been happy with my interactions with them (Boston Police is a whole different story). In my experience, they’re a pretty diverse group (as cops go) and I understand it was a multi ethnic group of officers that arrested Gates.

It doesn’t matter, they still approached this situation as prejudiced jackasses.

A) Who would say, in the middle of Cambridge, “I am a Harvard Professor” who wasn’t one? This is the lesson that Kevin Costner learned from Sean Connery at the beginning of The Untouchables. Criminals don’t walk around Chicago claiming they are Treasury officers, and criminals don’t walk around Cambridge, MA claiming they are Harvard professors. Just think about it for a second. A man answers the door. He says there is no criminal activity in progress. You ask him his name and he says that he is a wise and powerful Harvard professor. You might not know his name, you might not recognize him from television, but you are you going to assume he is lying to you? Based on the “black men with backpacks” evidence you have at your disposal? Were they conducting a manhunt for resume embellisher Jason Blair? Do they think they’re in the middle of Beverly Hills Cop II, and Gates is trying to steal the entire house before he has to go back to Detroit?

B) It’s called an apology. Okay, let’s say you don’t believe Professor Gates is who he says he is because you are bad at your job and you only watch PBS for the muppets. The man reluctantly shows you his identification (it really doesn’t matter how reluctant – if at all — he was to comply with your fundamentally idiotic request). At that point how do you not apologize profusely and get the hell out of his house? You’ve already insulted the man. You’ve already taken the word of a random passer-by over the word of one of the most famous professors in the Harvard University system. You are an intruder on his property. In short, your failure is complete. Isn’t it time to cut your losses and abandon the scene of your crime?

But when a black man is involved, the police are unable to grasp that they’ve made a horrible mistake in real time. There is some kind of sick need to justify the mistake on non-racial grounds, which only compounds the error. Would it have been so bad if the cop said “Hey Professor, I’m really sorry. I didn’t think I was profiling you, but maybe I was. I understand if you are angry, but I sincerely apologize.” At the point Professor Gates might have offered them tea and engaged them in interesting discussion about the perils racial profiling in eyewitness reports in the post-modern age.

I didn’t believe this until I saw it with my own eyes when I was 17-years-old, but police officers occasionally apologize to white people and generally treat them with respect. Seriously, I’ve seen it happen. The only white person I’ve seen the police instinctively distrust despite the fact that he is obviously telling the truth is Jack Bauer. And have you seen what Jack Bauer does to cops that get in his way? For most every other white person, cops are at least willing to listen.

Conversely, I’ve been stopped many times. I’ve never been arrested (which is my way of saying all of those stops were total BS) but not once has a uniformed officer ever said “I’m sorry.” They weren’t sorry when they tore the seat cushions out of my car in Carmel, Indiana “looking for drugs.” They weren’t sorry when followed me around for an entire afternoon in Marblehead, Massachusetts while I was going door-to-door soliciting money for the environment. I don’t want to imagine how un-sorry they’d be if I ever pulled a cell phone out of my pocket around them.

God forbid that I ever do as much with my life as Professor Gates has, and then some police officer comes to my home, wrongly accuses me of a crime, and then doesn’t have the respect to apologize appropriately. Because then I will get arrested and for a lot more than disorderly conduct.

I’m thrilled to live in an America where we can have a black president. I just hope he never gets locked out of the White House.


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  1. collapse expand

    “I’m thrilled to live in an America where we can have a black president. I just hope he never gets locked out of the White House.”

    Elie, This deserves page one in the Norton Anthology of Essays on Racial Profiling, should they ever publish one. It can certainly be a footnote in the wonderful Dr. Gates’ forthcoming “History of the African American People,” due out in a year or two, according to what he told me when I worked with him on background materials for those PBS series you mention — African American Lives, Looking for Lincoln. Or maybe we can just ask the Muppets to do a skit on how homeowners and cops should interact in sleepy little academics-and-muffins river towns like Cambridge.

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    Elie, at the end of the day, this does indeed appear to me to be a nasty case of racial profiling. However, I have to say that I think you do your argument harm by hitting so hard on the woman who called the cops.

    For starters, many break-ins happen during the daytime. There was a ring operating for years in Beverly Hills that would break into homes during the day and make some big hauls. The bad guys were eventually caught – in a daytime bust – and, not for nothing, they were white.

    We don’t know that the woman would not have called the cops had she seen white people trying to get through a stuck door in the same manner. It strikes me as awfully unfair (and, sorry to say and piss you off_, but a bit of reverse racism to assume that she would not have called the cops had her perceived bad guys been white. You are assuming that she only calls the cops in when she thinks a crime is being committed when those whom she believes to be committing the illegal act are black. Not fair as you have no basis for this allegation.

    Now, when we get to the behavior of the police, here is where I think you find your racial profiling and bad behavior. Your argument in your post is right on the money. I have seen Professor Gates on TV. I can’t imagine entering into a dialogue with the man and somehow coming to the conclusion that he could be breaking and entering! It is dramatically more likely that I would come to the conclusion that he was, indeed, entering his own home rather than trying to break into someone else’s. Clearly, the police officers involved were, at the very least, incredibly stupid and, sadly, more likely to have been engaging in racial profiling.

    I would lay of the lady who called it what she perceived as a crime. Your allegations are not proven, and could be completely unfair. She may have been behaving totally reasonably under the circumstances- or the circumstances as she saw them at the time. And that doesn’t mean she saw a black man engaging in what she thought was an illegal act –she saw a man engaging in an illegal act.

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    Cops treat white people with respect? I live in an Oregon college town that’s overwhelmingly white. Students and the (white) folks in the poorer part of town have complained of police harassment ( a bunch of DUI convictions were just dismissed because the cop falsified the breathalyzer results). When I was a student and had a few traffic tickets, the Jersey cops didn’t point guns at me, but they sure as hell didn’t treat me with respect.

    The Gates case is a tough one to judge. On the one hand, we know that racial profiling is a legitimate problem and that blacks often receive a hostile reception from police. On the other hand, many of us (especially journalists) know that prominent people often have a sense of entitlement and behave like jerks. I could read this case as racial profiling of an Africa-American, or as class warfare when a Harvard professor hassled some blue-collar cops who didn’t recognize his status. Very likely it could have been a mixture of the two.

    • collapse expand

      I don’t think Elie is making the argument that white people get treated with respect by police officers. But, let’s face it. under the same circumstances as Dr. Gates, if the cops came into my home, saw pictures of me and my family around the house, was told I was a professor at the local university and showed them my ID proving the same, would they really have hauled me down to the police station? I don’t think so.

      As for college students, yes…we always had difficulties with the police. But, come’on, half the time we deserved it! :-)

      Further, the fact that some cops in your town rigged some breatholizer tests, while obviously way wrong, this does not speak in any way to the point Elie is making. Dr. Gates was treated the way he was treated because he was a black man in a neighborhood where the cops figured he didn’t belong. A very different issue than cops manufacturing evidence. And by the way, the cops who manufactured evidence in your town are subject to criminal penalties for doing the same. There are no such criminal penalties for police – or anyone else- who practice racial profiling, subtle or otherwise. Maybe there should be.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Agreeing with Rick, I find the fault here mainly with the cops. Arresting Professor Gates for disorderly conduct was a huge power trip. Cops don’t react well at all if you don’t immediately take the subservient role, and submit to their dominance–whether you’re white or black. As I’ve learned from past personal experience, if you in any way show frustration or anger over how stupid they’re acting, they’ll make your life miserable, as it seems they tried to do with Gates.

    • collapse expand

      Great interview with Prof. Gates! Particularly interesting to me, relevant to my earlier point, that Prof. Gates appreciates the woman who called this into the police and hopes she would do it again under similar circumstances. I also appreciate his recognition that there are good and bad people of all colors and professions.
      As for the Toure piece in Daily Beast, I’m sorry but I just can’t get into people who give themselves one name…unless it’s Cher. But a one-named journalist? Arghh.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Elie – agree completely with you! As soon as the officer saw that Skip Gates’s driver’s license matched his address, the cop should have said, “Sorry, my mistake. We were called.” End of story.

    • collapse expand

      Whether the police officer should have apologized is irrelevant. The question is whether the police officer refused to apologize and then arrested Dr. Gates solely because the professor is black. If he did, then it’s racism. If he didn’t, then it’s police overstepping their authority. Either way, it’s a problem, but the issues aren’t identical.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Yeah, I saw that Gates essentially let the caller off the hook. It’s a reasonable and intelligent approach that is consistent Gates’s decades of thought and scholarship. Needless to say, I complete disagree.

    I think neighborly passer-by is the heart of the problem. It’s not just because I believe that she simply wouldn’t have made the phone call had Gates been white (though I do believe that, and Rick is right to point out that, that belief my be an indication of my own racism. As I’ve said before racial tolerance is something that you have to constantly think about on a day-to-day basis). But as I explained in my piece, there were lots of things the white lady could have done and could have observed before she called the cops.

    We have good Samaritan laws in this country. They are different in every state, but the long point of these laws is that our society requires a little more than simply having your “heart in the right place.” Once you decide to help, you assume a duty of acting as a reasonable person would under the circumstances.

    Quite simply, I don’t think it is reasonable to call the cops whenever you see two people trying to forcibly enter house without first attempting to fully ascertain the situation. That is a pretty low bar, I’m not asking her to be Sherlock Holmes. Again, this whole thing could have been cleared up long before the cops were on scene if the lady in the cab had simply called out “what are you doing over there!”

    I can’t be the only person that has ever asked a question before calling the police.

    • collapse expand

      Not sure i can agree with you here. Seeing what one believes to be a break in happening, and deciding to report it to the police, does not put you within the definition of a good samaritan for at least most- if not all – state laws. Indeed, if one is concerned that something is amiss, like a potential break-in, the wise course is to phone the police rather than engage, whether the potential offender is black or white.
      Obama came down on the side of the woman doing the right thing by phoning in what she believed might be a crime in process. I spoke with my friend/neighbor about it this afternoon who happens to be African American. He too felt that, in the same circumstances, he would appreciate the woman taking the trouble to call the police in case his home was, in fact, being broken into. However, he certainly felt strongly that the police behaved incredibly badly once they arrived at Prof. Gate’s home where they could easily discern that he was, indeed, the owner. I share this opinion. I don’t think we want to throw cold water on the idea of people taking the trouble to phone the police if they think something is amiss. I applaud it. I certainly do not applaud the behavior of the Cambridge Police Dept.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Sorry, Elie. If my wife sees what might be two men breaking down a neighbor’s door, I want her to call the cops, not confront them.

    • collapse expand

      Sorry, Michael. But if my wife sees two men breaking down her own door, I want her to confront them — from the safety of a 1 ton moving vehicle. Because the chances that it’s a home invasion are greatly outweighed by the chances that it’s me and a buddy trying to get home from a drunken evening. At least in my neighborhood.

      But hey, states differ on the law regarding this. In Texas, I’m pretty sure my wife would have the right to shoot me and my buddy without asking why we were attempting to enter our house.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        In Texas, she could shoot you in the back and claim self-defense.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand


          Your quest to draw some sort of equivalency between Dr. Gates and grungy white long-haired college kids in your lily-white town falls flat for this one reason: Skip Gates isn’t a grungy college kid.

          You started your straw man argument when you said this: “I live in an Oregon college town that’s overwhelmingly white. Students and the (white) folks in the poorer part of town have complained of police harassment ( a bunch of DUI convictions were just dismissed because the cop falsified the breathalyzer results). When I was a student and had a few traffic tickets, the Jersey cops didn’t point guns at me, but they sure as hell didn’t treat me with respect.”

          In other words, you’re comparing apples and aardvarks, which just doesn’t work. The appropriate test (and we’re all admittedly just guessing here) would be to compare how the cops interact with grungy white long-haired college kids vs. grungy non-white long-haired college kids.

          And, most importantly for our current situation, compare how the cops would have interacted with Dr. Gate’s white counterpart – a brilliant, tired and jetlagged, urbane, perhaps a bit entitled world-renowned academic just trying to get into his jammed front door. Would they have arrested him, especially after they were given proof (although surely begrudgingly) that he lived there? Almost certainly not. Well, why not? In other words, with all else being equal, what is the distinguishing factor that would force a different outcome for white Skip Gates, who would have spent the evening in questin relaxing with a good book and a glass of wine after the cops left (apologizing), vs. black Skip Gates, who suffered the indignity of being cuffed, booked and dragged down to the police station?


          It has nothing to do with entitlement or class. It is completely ridiculous to compare grungy white college kids to Skip Gates. Gates isn’t supposed to be treated like a college kid of any hue. He is supposed to be treated by the cops like his white counterparts. The fact that he isn’t (and that you have no problem comparing him to the cast of Animal House) disproves this notion of a post-racial America.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Has anyone focused on age, size, and infirmity – Skip Gates is 58. He’s got salt and pepper hair, and he’s tiny. And – this is the big one for me – he walks quite haltingly with a cane. These facts, and the fact that his driver’s license matched the house number, are important indicators that Gates was where he was supposed to be – if the cop had been paying attention.

        This cop (or cops) need some re-training. Ogletree should sue Cambridge, and the remedy should be a force-wide training program on racial, gender, and ethnic stereotyping.

        One final thought: The publicity generated by this incident could enormously boost the ratings for Gates’s excellent programs on African-American genealogy for PBS. And I hope it drives traffic to his site in partnership with the Washington Post, http://www.theroot.com. Here’s theRoot’s Dayo Olopade interviewing Gates about the incident: http://www.theroot.com/views/skip-gates-speaks

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    So when I’m 58, I’ll get a free pass to hassle cops just because I’m white? Oh, man, I am gonna have a blast!

  9. collapse expand

    Elie- In reading your comment in response to Michael Peck, I have to say that I start to get it from your point of view and why you would have good reason to see it differently than I might.

    No question that blacks are hassled, profiled and all around treated like crap by the police hugely more than a white guy in America.

    You indicated that you would want your wife to get involved from the safety of her car. I get that in the context of your own experience where the risk to you and your wife might well be greater by getting the police involved. Thus, I can see why you would feel both you and your wife might have a better ending in the situation were she to call out “yo..what are you doing?” before getting police involved.
    In my case, I would want my wife to keep on driving because I am more afraid of the risk to her if she has anything to do with potential bad guys than I am concerned about dealing with the police when they arrive to find that I was getting into my own house. We are both, no doubt, equally concerned about our wives safety. In your case she may be more endangered by the police while mine is more likely to be endangered by potential burglars.

    So, from the cultural experience point of view, i do begin to see why your reaction would be different from my own. We do still live in two different countries. Pretty sad.

    • collapse expand

      Well said, Rick. The irony is that almost certainly in the minds of the Cambridge cops, their behavior was appropriate as policemen.

      What’s really frightening is that like a lot of other issues in this country, there is extreme polarization. For every American who is convinced that the Cambridge cops are racist, there is another one who backs the cops 100 percent (check out some of the pro-cop comments on the Boston.com site). This is a signal that there are fears here that go way beyond the behavior of law enforcement.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  10. collapse expand

    While I’m not denying the racial issue here, I think it has to do more with the cops than the lady that called. The police officers are the ones that mishandled the situation, so I agree with Rick’s original assessment of the white lady getting some harsh criticism. Whether in broad daylight or at night, in a car or in a tank, citizens witnessing a possible crime are advised by the police not to get involved. I believe the woman did the right thing in calling the police immediately when she believed a crime was taking place – that she described them as black is a matter of circumstance. One must assume that she believed a crime was genuinely taking place and the risk of ascertaining that fact is greater than making a simple phone call. Even President Barack Obama describes the chain of events up to this point “so far, so good.” I agree.

    What really bothers me, according to what I’ve heard and read, is that when the police arrived and Gates was able to prove, with his ID, that it was his home, he was still arrested for disorderly conduct. The police are the real problem.

    Let’s give the lady the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Dr. Gates wasn’t at home and two thieves decided that broad daylight would be the perfect time to rob a house because no one would suspect that anyone would be stupid enough to have such bad timing. The woman has three choices with four potential consequences:

    1) Yell something at them from the cab where potential criminals can shoot at the cab or run away in fear (assuming the cab wasn’t moving so fast that she couldn’t say anything if she wanted to)

    2) Call the police and have them arrive and assess the situation since it’s their job

    3) Don’t call and risk the possibility that someone’s home is genuinely being burglarized

    I think the woman made the right choice in terms of mitigating risk. It’s not her fault the police decided to make an arrest and file charges after Dr. Gates proved his innocence.

  11. collapse expand

    I am a Black woman and a law enforcement officer. While I regret that this incident resulted in the arrest of a law-abiding citizen, Prof. Gates had a role in the outcome, and the passage of time is only magnifying how great that role was. I mean, “your mamma”?? That was not appropriate colloquy for this situation. (Really, Skip. LOL.)

    The neighbor is not at fault for calling in what she thought was a crime in progress. And it’s worth noting that the cab driver was not taken into custody. But I do agree that once Skip Gates provided his I.D. and established his lawful presence there, the matter should have been closed. So why wasn’t it? We had a clash of egos, and the reports say that Gates was raising his voice. (This is protected free speech– while inside your home. But Skip got baited into walking outside, and presto! Now he was causing a “public disturbance.” )

    Sgt. Crowley had the discretion to close the case and walk away. He didn’t. Instead he called for backup. I still fault him for that decision, but this is just one person’s opinion. But the inference is that he was protecting, and I do question the need to haul away a disabled 58 y.o. from his own house.

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    About Me

    My first name is pronounced like Eliot without the “it,” my last name is pronounced like the Crystal I don’t have the “M”oney to afford. I’m an editor of Above the Law, a legal website that covers all of the gossip and business of the legal profession. Prior to that I wrote about politics. I used to be a lawyer, but I quit that profession in lieu of stripping naked and lighting myself on fire. I received a degree in Government from Harvard University because I enjoy pain, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School because I dislike change. I’m also a Met fan (pain + born in Queens).

    I’m African-American thanks to my maternal grandmother (which means there is one word I can use that white people can’t. Mwahaha). My father is from Haiti and my wife is from Zimbabwe, but outside of the northeast corridor I turn into a sniveling idiot. My maternal grandfather is from China, so I can make fun of Chinese-Americans ¼ of the time. It’d be great to go a whole year without embarrassing my mother, as Julia might say “Ye Gods, can that woman wait.”

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