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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.