Gatesgate: Racism 101
Harvard 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.