Being angry and black is a crime in Cambridge

I mean, it’s a crime most everywhere, but Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., is certainly the most high-profile person to get arrested for it in a while.

For those who haven’t yet heard the story, Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was returning home from a week-long trip to China and discovered that his front door was stuck. He and the driver from the car service he was using attempted to force it open, and the sight of two black men trying to break open a door prompted a neighbor to call the Cambridge police. A cop showed up after Gates had gotten in through the back door, asked that Gates prove he lived there, and then, after some kind of unfriendly exchange, arrested Gates for “tumultuous” behavior.

The cop’s report, which the Boston Globe had made available but then took down without explanation, said that Gates accused him of racism, told him he didn’t know who he was messing with, and made some kind of incoherent “your mama” remark. Gates says he simply requested, repeatedly, the cop’s name and badge number, and when the cop left his house without replying, he followed the officer to his front porch, where he was arrested.

I think this is one of those instances where the truth actually does, in all likelihood, lie somewhere between the two versions. I think that Gates—tired, jetlagged, understandably outraged—probably said something not-nice to the cop, although it probably did not contain the phrase “your mama.” And I believe the cop did refuse to give Gates information, an explanation, or at least a cursory apology for inconveniencing him.

But even if we try to cast this in a light that is as friendly as possible to the police—for example, if Gates were belligerent and loud from the second they showed up, if he swore at them and refused to cooperate, if he threatened them with lawsuits and ignored protestations that they were just doing their jobs (none of which I believe to be true)—the Cambridge PD is still clearly guilty of, at the very least, abusing its power. Cops really, really don’t like it when they think people don’t respect them, and Gates probably was guilty of insufficient asskissery. But we have laws against throwing people in jail for saying shit that the authorities don’t like, so it was the cop’s duty to swallow his anger, bid Gates a polite goodbye, and leave. But he didn’t do that; he decided to teach Gates a lesson about how you talk to cops.

And, realistically, his decision was almost certainly affected by Gates’ race. I can’t read the dude’s mind, obviously, but even if he weren’t thinking anything so blatantly racist as “I’ll put this uppity black dude in his place,” he probably would have been a little more willing to believe Gates’ statement that he lived there if Gates were white. He probably would have found it a little easier to ignore his anger and wounded pride at not being deferentially sucked up to. He probably would have been less inclined to see Gates’ heated remarks as disturbing the peace rather than justifiable anger that will pass when its cause is removed. He probably would have been less likely to think he could get away with arresting a Harvard professor if that professor’s wealth and powerful connections were written all over his pale skin.

That’s the kind of racism many people face and many of us perpetuate today. There are still people in white hoods, yes, and people willing to say out loud and without apology that Mexicans are lazy and black people are thieves and Asians are emotionless mathbots, but there are also a lot more people whose opinions have been shaded by these stereotypes in ways that can be hard for their holders to detect. All of us have received these messages from our culture, and all of our thinking has been, in varying degrees, shaped by these messages. Even those of us who fight against discrimination and work to eliminate our own prejudices whenever we can identify them.

The Cambridge police and prosecutor’s office have announced they will drop all charges against Gates. In a few days they will probably release a statement about how they don’t engage in racial profiling, and some of that officer’s best friends are black. But even if no one involved in the situation thought they were treating Gates any differently than they would treat a white man, their actions still seem racist, and they need to be called on it.

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2 Responses

  1. I can only imagine how enraged Professor Gates would feel to be treated in any way that suggested he was a criminal. Here is a guy who has done everything to conform to the ideals of the upper class elite segments of society and he has to be treated like a criminal? I’m surprised Republicans aren’t protesting. Here is a man on his own porch, having to prove he lives where he lives. And then when he is angry about this, he is sent to jail. Do this to Rush Limbaugh and see how he reacts.

  2. YES!

    And I super heart J. Smooth. He’s so smart and eloquent.

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