Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. got a bitter taste of life on the other side of the color line last week. He experienced the tense relationship many other African-American men know all to well after encounters with police.
The leafy streets and campus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, did not shield him from the harsh glare of a police searchlight. No. What should have been a simple incident of police responding to the report of a break-in in progress, turned into a major confrontation, leaving many to reassess the euphoria over the election of a Black President. Except for the wistful illusion that a corner has been turned, things have not changed much in America.
Gates was led from his house in handcuffs after police were called to investigate suspicious activity that an alert neighbor had reported seeing on his porch. Gates had just returned from a trip to China. Finding the front door to his single-family rental house broken, he tried to force his way inside. Eventually he entered through the back with his key.
Although police might be commended for responding to the report of a house break-in, they went overboard taking Gates into custody.
A terrible injustice took place. It suggests at least abuse of police authority that this slight, 5’7, 150 lb. scholar who walks with a limp and a cane ended up clashing with a police officer, handcuffed, removed from his house, and taken to the lockup in a police car.
Ironically, in his 2004 PBS documentary “America beyond the Color Line,” Gates visited a Chicago jail and pointed out some of the factors that account for pronounced racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Why is the concentration of incarcerated African-American men --- ranging from juvenile detention to death row --- always so out of whack with their numbers in the general population?
Gates got his own up-close and personal answer to Malcolm X’s iconic question: What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.? The answer: suspected criminal. The symbolism does not escape the consciousness of the rest of Black America. If it could happen to Skip Gates, it could happen to anyone. Police are no respecters of persons --- not even a respectable, renowned, bespectacled, cane carrying Harvard don married to a white woman and having an almost white father.
The numbers documenting racial disparities in criminal justice settings all around the country are striking. An ACLU examination of stop and frisk activity over an 18 month period in New York indicated 867,617 people --- mostly men --- were stopped by NYPD officers. Blacks outnumbered whites nearly five to one. Nearly 90 percent of the individuals stopped were innocent.
Many studies over time inevitably lead to the conclusion that African-Americans do not enjoy equal protection under the law. Accepted as a Constitutional right on paper, the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection is worthless if those involved in frontline policing act on the assumption that black skin is probable cause for arrest. Encountering blackness and maleness, police are prone to react with incivility, hostility, or worse. What should have been a simple exchange between the uniformed white police sergeant and a Black college professor, escalated to a point where the officer concluded Gates needed to be taught a lesson.
Gates discovered last Thursday that he could suffer the fate so familiar to many African-American men unfortunate enough to have dealings with police. Things can turn ugly, real fast. He ran smack up against the reality of overly zealous policing that thousands of Black men have experienced.
New York’s Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church and President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, complained of police conduct in a confrontation over a parking space within blocks of his church a few years ago. A tradition of racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike was ultimately uncovered with evidence of horrendous treatment of minority motorists at the hands of state troopers.
In Gates’ case, the police reported that he became agitated, loudly accusing officers of racist motives in the way they were handling the reported break-in at his house. Cambridge police claimed he was loud, tumultuous and unruly after they started questioning him.
Maybe he was a little agitated. But Gates found himself smack in the middle of one of the most pernicious games run on African-Americans and poor people, the game where a look, a question, or the perception of tension initiates a launch sequence not easily paused. It ends up in jail.
Gates is not just another academician who never comes up for air. Beyond the tweedy circles of the Ivies, the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research has managed to enliven his scholarly pursuits with publicly acclaimed projects. For the past few years, he has been a recognizable figure poking around the family trees of prominent Africans Americans for PBS.
In the process of uncovering genealogical details, he has ably demonstrated the many strains of American history, law, and custom that shape the lives of individual African-American families. He revealed to Chris Rock that the comedian’s great-great-grandfather, a South Carolina slave, fought with the Union Army, bringing the normally irreverent Rock to tears.
The irony of Gates’ arrest is that he’s not only an academic superstar, but also has a fairly public persona with his off campus projects like the Washington Post sponsored website The Root, The Encarta Encyclopedia project, and the documentary series work he’s done for PBS. Not that one would expect a police officer investigating a complaint to identify with the professor’s professional achievements, but Gates said he produced identification confirming he had a right to be in the house. Things went off track when he asked the officer for his name and badge number.
More than half the incarcerated population of the US is African-American. However, that does not give police justification to suspect that all black men are up to no good. The Cambridge officer should have been able to evaluate the situation honestly --- especially after Gates produced ID showing that he was standing in his own house --- and deescalate instead of exacerbate the tensions.
In Gates’ genealogy project, “African American Lives,” for the most part his discoveries about the stars’ ancestors yield sensitive, inspiring and sometimes heart wrenching revelations. After Emancipation, Whoopi Goldberg’s people legitimately purchased large pieces of property in Florida, and Oprah’s folks provided a site for a school. One of Tina Turner’s forebears did something similar. In fact, Turner attended the Flaggs Grove Grammar School, learning only through Gates’ research that her family had provided the land for the school generations earlier. It was all there in land records and other documents.
Gates African American Lives project has thus far avoided getting down in the dirt. The false accusations, humiliation, intimidation, violence and general use of the criminal justice system to terrorize slaves and ex-slaves are all part of the tortured evolution of successful African Americans like Dr. Gates. After Emancipation, incarceration intensified as a means of ensuring the availability of cheap Black labor. The instinct for incarceration continues, reflected in the misguided actions of Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley.
Unwittingly Crowley has made an invaluable contribution to Black thought and the African American narrative. His Blacks-belong-in-jail meme shifted Gates’ story-telling focus. Incarceration will be an important part of future documentaries, Gates vowed this week. Nothing is more significant to African-American lives than the ravages of incarceration on black families.
In an apology issued by a departmental spokesperson, Cambridge police dropped all charges and admitted that arresting the professor was not their finest hour --- but went on to say that neither was it Skip Gates’. Although the official police report has disappeared from several websites, they are sticking by their story as implausible as it appears to be.
Lawrence Aaron most recently wrote an op-ed page column three times a week for many years at The Record in Bergen County (N.J.), before which he worked as an assignment editor at the paper. The column examined issues impacting ethnic and multicultural communities in one of the nation’s most diverse states. Aaron has a B.A. in History and master’s in journalism, both from Columbia University.