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Posted by on Jul 21, 2009 in Society | 12 comments

Living While Black

First, read Abby Goodnough’s New York Times article about the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It fleshes out the details, and provides some new ones. Then, try engaging with the little thought experiment I’ve written below.

Woman passerby calls police to report a possible break-in after seeing two men trying to force open the front door of a home in Harvard Square. A few minutes later, after the cab driver has gone and the man who lives in the house has gone inside,  a police car pulls up. The police officer inside the car gets out, goes to the door of the home, tells the man who lives there that he is investigating a report of a break-in, and asks the man to step outside. The man refuses. At no point does the officer appear to understand or acknowledge, by words or manner, that the man lives there — that this house is his house. The man shows the officer his Harvard University identification card and his driver’s license to prove that he does, indeed, live there, but the officer does not seem to believe him. From there, the situation escalates. The man is angry because he feels he is being treated as a criminal suspect with no justification, so he starts to raise his voice. He does not touch the officer, or become violent, but it’s clear he is very angry. The encounter ends with the police officer arresting the man for disorderly conduct.

That is the basic, bare bones description of what happened yesterday at the home of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a well-known and highly regarded professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. (Of course, you don’t get to be a professor of anything at Harvard unless you are highly regarded in your field, at minimum.) And of course, I left out one crucial detail in my description — the skin color and perceived racial identity of the woman passerby, the man who lives in the house, the cab driver, and the police officer. Well, of course you already know, but I’ll spell it out: The woman passerby and the police officer are white. The man who lives in the house and the cab driver who was helping him unjam his door are black.

Some questions: Why was the woman passing by so convinced she was witnessing a house break-in? If the two men had been white, would she have felt sure enough she was witnessing a break-in that she would call the police? Did she stop for one moment before calling the police to listen to anything the two men might be saying, or to try to assess, via verbal and nonverbal, behavioral cues, whether she was witnessing a break-in? I mean, I know that when I lived in a private house, I sometimes had trouble unlocking the door. My daughter, when she was in high school and using a key to enter he dad’s home every day, sometimes had trouble, too. That door could be difficult. Nobody ever called the police on me, or on her.

If the man who lived in the house had been white, would the police officer have asked him to step out on the porch because he was investigating a possible break-in? Do you think it possible that the man who lived there — Prof. Gates — would have reacted in a different fashion to the officer’s requests if the officer had conveyed to Gates, by word and manner, that he assumed Gates to be the resident of the house but wanted confirmation, rather than conveying the assumption that Gates did not belong there, asking him to prove that he did, and then making it clear he did not really believe him even after he had?

And would any of this have gone down the way it did if Gates and the female passerby had been white?

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • joeinhell

    There are over 7,000 female veterans in the United States living on the street. Would you care to guess what color and class they are?

  • EEllis

    “Why was the woman passing by so convinced she was witnessing a house break-in?”

    Because he did break in. Nothing illegal or wrong he just didn’t have his keys , but he did break in.

  • kathykattenburg

    Where did you read that he didn’t have his keys, Ellis? The door was jammed. Presumably, if the woman knew he lived there, she would have assumed he was having trouble with the door, right? And she wouldn’t have called the police, right? So it’s just sheer bull crap to say she called the police because he really and truly *was* breaking in. If you believe that, then you would have to believe that the possibility that he lived there was an irrelevant piece of information, because even if he did live there, he was still breaking in, and she would still have called the police.

    Would you call the police to report someone trying to break in to a house if you knew or thought it was possible that the person lived there? “Uh, officer, I think the guy lives there and the door is jammed, but he’s breaking in, please get here fast.” Right.

  • troosvelt_1858

    Looking at it from my own POV, I live in a racially mixed but largely white neighborhood. If I came to my home like Gates did and had to force my way in I would not be shocked if a neighbor or passerby called the police. We don’t all see everyone or know all our neighbors and you can’t be too careful these days.

    As to the idea of stopping to check things or to more or less ask ‘excuse me sir are you the homeowner or are you an armed intruder’ that seems pretty silly to me. If you ask the person the question and he is a crook, what is to stop them from coming after you instead ? Didn’t our parents teach us to be better safe than sorry ?

    If the police showed up I would expect them to demand ID for me to prove I lived here, I would not expect them to take my word for it.

    Further, for legal reasons I would not expect the police to enter my property (without some probable cause they would have no right to enter). So I would expect them to ask me to step outside to show my ID. I am a white man and I would expect them to behave exactly as they did with Gates.

    Indeed, it is, at least in part, because of civil rights activism that the police can’t just walk into the property without cause. The fact someone says they live here and invites them in is not enough and if it turned out the person did not live there the police could be liable for trespassing.

    So in short, I do not see this as racism and if it had been a white man and the exact same thing happened (including his protests) I suspect those going after the cops here would be going after the homeowner for being uncooperative.

  • redbus

    What doesn’t add up is why the officer didn’t believe Gates owned the home when his driver’s license and Harvard i.d. said otherwise. Everything up to that point is routine.

  • EEllis

    “What doesn’t add up is why the officer didn’t believe Gates owned the home when his driver’s license and Harvard i.d. said otherwise. Everything up to that point is routine.’

    Who said he didn’t believe him? He got arrested for running his mouth not for anything else.

  • donell

    All of your comments are off the mark or simply naive. You can’t judge this incident using your everyday white America experience. It does not apply. You have to be black/African American to really understand the dynamics of this situation. Ever heard of “showing your color?” Gates lost his cool. This is 2009 and he knew instantly (any black person would know) that he was being profiled on the basis of his color. I am sure he has run into such incidences of profiling before and was able to muster the appropriate responses/surrender to the indignity of it all. The fact that he may have been tired from his trip compounded the magnitude of this indignity. Gates is the victim here. These cops need to be fired.

  • kritt11

    If he had proper, ID the officer should have realized that he lived there and left immediately.

    Gates shouldn’t have gotten arrested unless he assaulted the cop.

  • Father_Time

    GOOD GRIEF, but the good professor mouthed off and got himself arrested. He was breaking into his house for crying out loud. Probably locked himself out. A neighbor did not recognize him and called the cops. Happens all the time. It’s not “racial profiling”. If he hadn’t opened his big mouth trying to intimidate the cop with how damned important he thinks he is, he never would have been arrested. You cannot pitch a bitch at a cop doing his duty and expect to not get arrested. You leave the cop no choice.

    Kritt11—ID? Assault? Are you nuts? ID is irrelevent when you harass a cop in the performance of his duty. You certainly don’t need to “assault” him to get arrested.

  • troosvelt_1858

    Interesting report today indicates that at least one of the officers at the scene was black.

    It’s also worth remembering that Cambridge is probably the most liberal city in the country

  • EEllis

    He is an ass and a liar. Gates said that claims that he was publicly yelling at Sgt. Crowley are false, and that with a bronchial infection, he was not capable of shouting
    BS. This is directly contradicted by eyewitnesses and even in the pics taken of his ass being arrested. He acted like a prick so the cop arrested his ass. Should the police have let it go? Probably but couldn’t that of been racial? “I would arrest him but he’ll just cry racism so I let him go instead.”
    He looks on cops as the bad guys. He acted like that being a big a pain in the ass as he could and a cop decided not to take it. Screw him.

  • troosvelt_1858

    At the risk of having the column labeled ‘It’s WSJ so it’s fake’ this was an interesting take on someone else who had this happen to them

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