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Posted by on Jul 23, 2009 in Society | 24 comments

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., “A Black Man in America” (Continued)

From the transcript of President Obama’s news conference last night in response to Lynn Sweet’s question about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge:

OBAMA: Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here… Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.

And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

With that, the story gets new life. The front page of the NYTimes. TPM calls it Manna from Heaven for Fox News. The Daily Beast has it first among its Top Five Moments from Obama’s Press Conference and asks, Did Obama go beyond presidential propriety in saying the Cambridge, Mass., police acted “stupidly”?

I think not.

Otherwise engaged, I wasn’t able to participate in the active comment string on my Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrested For Being “A Black Man in America” post. But as I read those comments late into the night I was impressed. Overall they were a passionate, engaging, good and legitimate back and forth. Not so shrill or nasty as might have been.

With no need to rehash the facts again, let’s acknowledge that each of us brings our own perspective to those facts, whatever they are. Perfect objectivity is impossible. Still, to keep the conversation going, I’ll share some of what my influences are and where my opinions are coming from.

I’ve quoted extensively from the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name – The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. On point, from Bill Moyers’ Journal, a legacy of neo-slavery:

BLACKMON: There’s no way that anybody can read this book and come away still wondering why there is a sort of fundamental cultural suspicion among African-Americans of the judicial system, for instance. I mean, that suspicion is incredibly well-founded. The judicial system, the law enforcement system of the South became primarily an instrument of coercing people into labor and intimidating blacks away from their civil rights. That was its primary purpose, not the punishment of lawbreakers. And so, yes, these events build an unavoidable and irrefutable case for the kind of anger that still percolates among many, many African-Americans today.

I believe that. Blackmon, btw, knows what he’s talking about. He was born in Arkansas and grew up in the Mississippi Delta. He worked as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before becoming Atlanta bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. [For more from me on him and his book see here, here, here, here, and here.]

John McWhorter, now at Columbia but formerly a Senior Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, writing in The New Republic:

When I first started writing for the media on race, despite my initial reputation as a hidebound "black conservative" I made sure to point up how important this problem between blacks and police forces was, such as in this now ancient editorial. It was the first time I got a raft of hate mail from white people–they only wanted me to write about things black people were doing wrong. I expanded it into a chapter in my anthology of essays–and my impression is that it has been the least read of any of the chapters in that book. People seem to see the issue as somehow beside the point.

He calls police relations the main thing that stands in the way of an open approach to progress on race, recounts a number of painful police incidents, and concludes:

I maintain that racism is no longer the main problem for black America–but have always said that when racism rears its ugly head it must be stomped upon. In 2009, Obama acknowledged, black men’s encounters with the police (as well as some black women’s) are unlike enough to what whites encounter that attention must still be paid.

Princeton’s Melissa Harris Lacewell explains Gates’ prominence in Black studies:

Gates is the director of the nation’s preeminent institute for African American studies, but he is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world. He is more a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement. In this sense Gates embodies a kind of post-racialism: he celebrates and studies blackness, but does not attach a specific political agenda to race. For those who yearn for a post-racial America where all groups are equal recognized for their achievements, but where all people are free to be distinct individuals, there are few better models than Professor Gates.

Gates is largely responsible for the institutional investment in African American studies made by premier universities over the past two decades. Student activists and faculty advocates led the massive black studies movement of the 1960s; a movement that created substantial changes in course offerings, faculty recruitment, administrative structures, and student retention at many state universities. But the country’s most privileged institutions remained largely untouched by this populist era of race and ethnic studies.

Rather than relying on techniques that mimicked the Civil Rights Movement, Gates helped innovate and perfected a market strategy for African American studies.

Gates used the inherent competitiveness of Ivy League institutions to create a hyper-elite niche for the very best black academics. His strategy improved the market value of black intellectuals throughout the academy and the public sphere. At one point Gates assembled a “dream team” at Harvard that included professors Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, Michael Dawson, Lawrence Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Lani Guinier and William Julius Wilson.

For a fleeting moment Gates was the curator of the world’s best living museum of black intellectual life. His Harvard cohort sent other prestigious schools into a competitive scramble to assemble their own collection, initiating a gilded age of black academia.

She concludes:

I like and respect Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Although we have had intellectual and political disagreements he has always welcomed dissent and encouraged individuality. Our personal connection is not why I was so devastated to see his mug shot or images of him handcuffed on his front porch. I was not even distressed because of class implications that reasoned, “If this can happen to a Harvard professor then no one is safe.”

My distress is squarely rooted in feeling that I watched the police handcuff American possibility.

Inside Higher Ed finds more of that. If It Can Happen To Him …

For black male academics, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates represented their experiences and fears of profiling, no matter how many degrees they have earned.

Ok. Enough already with the academics. Salon’s James Hannaham looks on the bright side:

First of all, I’m elated that black Harvard professors exist, though I’m sure there are not enough of them; secondly, that what happens to any Harvard professor, regardless of race, can become worth reporting on; and thirdly, that this event will probably make members of the Cambridge Police Department and other P.D.s think twice before they arrest another black man. Imagine the confusion it will cause the po-po — “Uh-oh. Is this brother a professor, too? What does Cornel West look like?” Maybe some ordinary, untenured black men in the street will get some much-deserved benefit of the doubt now.

I actually think cops have to “think twice” about race every day. With that I’ll weigh in with my own personal anecdote.

A white student forced the doors open — broke in! — to the building I work in 15 minutes before we opened. Caught on camera and still in the lobby, campus police were called. They came. They confronted the student. Turns out, he broke in to use the bathroom. Campus police shook their heads and left.

What should they have done?

I said to a colleague that if the student had been black, he’d have been charged. The colleague answered back that if the student were black, he definitely would have been let off — because he was black and the cops wouldn’t want to provoke a racial confrontation.

After the conversation with my colleague, I realized that I think both can be true. And that’s the difficult situation the police find themselves in every day.

But it’s also what they are paid to do!

I do not believe that Gates is a serial racebaiter. I do believe what happened to him is evidence of a problem.

John McWhorter also has a piece in NY Magazine. There he strikes a different note:

To tell [Gates] to stop the “histrionics,” as many have, is to misunderstand that to the black community, cases like the shooting death of Sean Bell, in 2006, and Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, last New Year’s Day, are not isolated incidents. They compose a pattern unparalleled by any similarly frequent deaths of young white men, their names often recited in speeches, sermons, and tirades. But there are other inescapable patterns, too. Let’s face it: Black people do commit a disproportionate amount of crime in America. Example: Black people made up one in four of New York’s population in 2006, but committed 68.5 percent of murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults.

We can train the police against stereotyping. We can root out certain types of officers, perhaps those especially attracted to carrying a gun on behalf of law and order. But as long as black people commit a disproportionate amount of crimes, officers will occasionally be driven by certain gut-level assumptions, right or wrong. Pretty? Not at all. True? Sadly, yes.

Gates says he will be making a documentary. I hope he does:

“I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that the criminal justice system is rotten.” …

He said his documentary will ask: “How are people treated when they are arrested? How does the criminal justice system work? How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?”

In My Daddy, the Jailbird, Gates tells his daughter, Elizabeth, what he believes happened.

Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, the union representing the police sergeant who arrested Gates says it is standing behind the officer.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • What happened to Gates was wrong and ugly. It shouldn’t have happened; should never happen to anyone.

    That said, I wonder if the officer was poorly trained. I wonder if the officer is kind of a knucklehead who’s not very good at dealing with people of any race. I wonder if he might’ve been involved in past incidents in which blacks have attacked or threatened him, leaving him of a mind to be aggressive first and worry about the details later.

    I mention these possibilities not out of a desire to excuse the cop’s horrible handling of the situation and certainly not to excuse the too-common tendency of police to be rough and surly with blacks they come in contact with. Rather, I mention them because there are two sides to every story, and because there are sensational incidents that have no greater significance than that somebody fouled up spectacularly.

  • Father_Time

    Here’s the deal; we do not have enough information to judge the police officer yet. As for Gates, I already don’t like him. He is the educated man. He could have handled the situation a lot better in my opinion. One would almost think it was staged.

    As for racial profiling of, “Blacks”, Latinos”, and, ahem…”Poor White Men”, maybe that is because little violent crime is committed by, “Asians”, and, “Rich White Women”.

    Officers in the field are like any other human, they are conditioned by their environment. Instead of blaming the cops, maybe we should concentrate more on WHY THERE IS SO MUCH CRIME among “Blacks”, Latinos” and “Poor White Men”.

    Should the good professor find himself enjoying a nice evening in front of the laptop listening to music and two black men bust it, maybe he would hope for a cop that’s a little pushy to show up. I would think that rather the local cops would now shy away from this troublemaker. Poetic justice indeed.

  • $199537

    Obama should have kept quiet on this one. The details are hazy, Gates is a personal friend of his, and it’s likely both Gates and the police officer are telling their stories to put themselves in the best light. It’s very possible both of them behaved stupidly, and the president shouldn’t be taking sides.

  • Don Quijote

    It’s very possible both of them behaved stupidly, and the president shouldn’t be taking sides.

    It is totally irrelevant whether Gates acted like an ass or not, he was in his house and had not broken the law. Gates could have used every foul epithet in the English language to insult the cop and he would still be in the right, still his property and still no crime!

    Get over it, the police is there to serve the public and not vice versa.

  • empireofno

    gates was in his own home. he could have been screaming and hollering: it makes no difference. repeat: he was in his own home.

    the police are out of control and demand deference that they don’t deserve and that no self-respecting citizenry would ever offer. gates was in his own home, had not broken any laws and was arrested solely because he didn’t treat the arresting officer with the deference he’s accustomed to.

    the citizens don’t exist for the police. the police are there to serve the public. arresting gates was completely wrong and inexcusable.

  • jeainnj

    Here’s what SHOULD have happened. Dr. Gates should have complied with the officer. When he went to the kitchen to get his ID, the officer followed.

    Why? Becuase he didn’t know who Gates really was and his safety procuedures demanded it to be sure he wasn’t doing something like getting a gun.

    When the officer saw his ID he should have apologized for the intrusion and thanked Gates, which evidently didn’t happen.

    The officer should have provided his name and badge number to Gates, and also explained that when a call is received the police are obligated to respond, and isn’t police protection of his property one of the reasons Gates pays taxes.

    There’s blame on both sides here.

    • EEllis

      When the officer saw his ID he should have apologized for the intrusion and thanked Gates, which evidently didn’t happen

      Apologized for doing his job? For being white? For not knowing who Gates was?

  • EEllis

    gates was in his own home. he could have been screaming and hollering: it makes no difference. repeat: he was in his own home

    No he was not. He left his home to continue to yell and that is when he got arrested. And no you cannot make as much noise as you want even in your own home. If you have neighbors then there are limits.

  • jwest

    Well, so much for a “Post-racial society”.

    When the first black President says in a national press conference that “he doesn’t know all the facts” but the white guy is at fault, he’s lost an awful lot of people he had before.

    Now the profiles will be examined. The Cambridge cop is already turning out to be a great person, exemplary police officer, lots of black friends and no indication of any racism in the past.

    Gates, on the other hand, will have every word he’s ever written or said examined for Reverend Wright-esque white hatred. I’m thinking it’s there.

    Obama’s reaction was disgusting. He deserves the firestorm that is coming.

  • JWindish

    JWest, much of what I quoted was under the banner of “there is no post-racial society.” Check out The Corner. Via Yglesias: Spencer Ackerman at the time of the incident tweeted:

    GOD I can’t wait to read the white backlash against Obama’s Gates comment. To the Corner I go!

    And the Corner delivered. You didn’t even need to wait for one of the really repugnant Corner writers either. Instead, the relatively reasonable Yuval Levin delivered the outrage on behalf of an aggrieved white America.

  • DanDierdorf

    JWEST is letting his racism show. Obama did not blame whitey, he said “the cops” seemed out of line. Cops are ALL blue regardless of their respective ethnicity.

    Doh!

  • shannonlee

    I agree with jeainnj, both people most likely screwed up. I’ve been around enough professors to know that they require more deference than most cops.

  • Lit3Bolt

    @ jwest

    Yes, it’s good to know we live in a post-racial society where whites don’t close ranks with their white policemen, then belch pious platitudes about the endless “white hatred” they have to deal with from black Harvard professors or crazy black preachers. After all, blacks should be THANKFUL for all we’ve done for them, right? (/patbuchanan)

    I agree with jeainnj there’s likely blame on both sides but the police worship and white solidarity from some people here disgusts me, as well as an amazing lack of empathy. You can’t even imagine what it’s like to be black in America, can you?

  • juliantaylor

    Did Obama say The White cops acted stupid? Did Obama say the cops acted stupid? If you are making this issue a black or white issue YOU are a racist. Look in the mirror if you heard him say the white cops acted stupid that thinking alone lets you know that we have a long way to go in this country and people around the world are lauging at the dumb Americans it’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show.

  • jwest

    The country hoped it had elected a post-racial President who just happened to be black, but from the press conference last night it’s apparent we placed an Afro-centric Black Nationalists into the office.

    Obama’s answer to the question wasn’t off-the-cuff. He wanted that question and had his position planned. Gates was a friend of his and the police (read “white person”) were stupid. What he was thinking he was accomplishing was to say that all black people weren’t criminals and all white people were stupid to think that way.

    Nice try.

    The way it is working out, Obama is now looking like the black jury in the OJ trial. It doesn’t matter what the facts turn out to be, the black man is blameless and the white police are racist. Not exactly the message you want to hear from the head law enforcement officer of the country.

    Obama has turned out to be an idiot.

  • Lit3Bolt

    @ jwest

    lol. Wow. And how ARE things in Elohim City, jwest?

  • Great Job Professor Gates, and your Buddy Obama, both acted with Stupidity.. Cops did what they should do..

  • infidelphia

    the post racial president has spoken. now shut up you honkies.

  • Lit3Bolt

    hahahaha. Talk about “overreach.” Obama could have perhaps looked idiotic for his comments about Gates, but with this much crazy and white resentment bubbling forth, you make his job easy. A lot of people are just THRILLED they don’t have to pretend anymore about Obama.

  • lurxst

    Having been on the receiving end of police overreaching, its evident to this white male that all cops are indeed “blue”. Jeainnj is dead on with the observation that the problem was the meeting of two great egos. I have yet to be convinced that the cop in this scenario was acting with racial prejudice, but at some point, once the truth was ascertained, he should have deescalated the situation. Instead he seemed compelled to react to the affront of a person not giving him the proper respect and had to come up with some flimsy basis to make an arrest in order to put the citizen in his proper place and demonstrate police superiority, not necessarily white superiority.

  • qwert321

    A bad cop would have tasered Gates. A racist cop would have shot Gates in the head and planted a gun on him.

    This cop went by the text book (repeating an lawful order to stop Gate’s disorderdly conduct at least 3 times and finally arresting Gates when he refused to obey the lawful order).

  • qwert321

    “DanDierdorf – JWEST is letting his racism show. Obama did not blame whitey, he said “the cops” seemed out of line. Cops are ALL blue regardless of their respective ethnicity.”

    Would Obama have said anything if the officer in question was black? No. Obama crossed the line when he called the police officer “stupid”.

  • Father_Time

    Paul in London.

    Incorrect. You cannot holler scream or play music to loud even in your home if it creates a disturbance. Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor and you can be taken out of your home, arrested and prosecuted for it according to local ordinances depending on municipality.

    “Own Home”, means jack.

  • DLS

    Obama said (and did) a truly stupid thing, and his administration has reacted quickly now that they realize it, even if the professional victims and others that stand to gain from this in any way do not.

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