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The Education of Henry Louis Gates

POSTED: July 22, 2009, 12:00 am

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Safe to say that by now the news of the arrest, and subsequent release, of noted Harvard University historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has hit every corner of the nation, if not the globe. The scholar was accosted by Cambridge police in his home who were responding to a possible break-in. Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, was trying to unlock his door when approached by police officers. He was charged with disorderly conduct as officers on the scene initially claimed that the professor was belligerent. The charge was later dropped and Gates has demanded a public apology.

Given the history of local police encounters with Black men, Dr. Gates is lucky to have gotten out of the incident without bodily harm, or alive. In many instances, these episodes end up with deadly consequences for Black men, who are often added to the list of urban casualties. While no one who was not at the scene can say with any certainty the exact circumstances, it is our assumption that the police had little patience for an explanation and cared little that the Black man they were handcuffing was one of America’s preeminent scholars. The absurdity of Dr. Gates arrest is only understood through the lens of the Black male experience and the constant struggle for identity in our nation. Dr. Gates has now formed a kinship with his less celebrity brethren who daily face the prospect of an “episode” with local police.

It has long been understood by Black men that no matter what your pedigree, Ph.D. of no D, that we are conjoined by the reality that we are often viewed as criminally predisposed. To the outside world, the arrest of Dr. Gates is an outrage, an insult that is absurd on its face. For many of us the news was greeted not with disbelief, and certainly not because we believed the version of the incident offered by police, but by a sigh of relief that he was not physically harmed. For many of us who have faced a similar predicament, our first instinct is to give thanks that the person involved walked away without injury. We suspect Dr. Gates was beside himself, and rightly so, having been violated in his own home. What police described as the professor exhibiting “loud and tumultuous behavior” was Dr. Gates simply demanding the respect he deserves as a citizen. It is the same demand that Black men repeatedly make when confronted by police under questionable circumstances.

Perhaps, just maybe, this incident will sensitize the nation to the distance we still have to travel to achieve the post-racial nirvana that many claimed with the election of Barack Obama. Judging by some of the reader comments left on the Boston Globe article on the episode we have a lot of work to do. Here are several examples:

Enough of throwing down the race card ... we have a Black President now, so that tired old ship has sailed. The guy got indignant like any self-important Harvard professor does, pulled the old "Do you know who I am?" routine, and got arrested as a result.

Here we go. Let's blow this out of all proportion. Let's not wait until we hear the full story....bring on the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton circus.

I wonder if Al Sharpton will beat the local news channels' camera crews to the "scene of the crime".

Dr. Gates has made it clear that he does not intend to drop this matter. He wants the principal officer involved in his arrest to apologize and Gates has indicated he is keeping his options open concerning legal recourse. The professor has the benefit of a heavyweight lawyer in Harvard colleague and law professor Charles Ogletree. We like Dr. Gates’ odds. We also hope he will use this experience and re-commit the use of his enormous scholarly talents and public profile to shed light on the inconsistencies in America that result in some of its citizens being devalued.


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