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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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