Many of you have probably heard that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who studies issues pertaining to race, was arrested earlier this week following a dispute with a police officer. Charges against Gates have been dropped, but according to the Washington Post, Gates views the matter as a modern lesson in racism. As a result, he says he will turn his attention as an academic to racial profiling and the treatment of African-Americans by the criminal justice system.
Overlooked in at least some accounts of this story is the small matter of whether Gates actually was a victim of police misconduct and, if so, whether this was due to racism. Naturally the answers depend on what actually occurred prior to Gates’ arrest, a matter that is in dispute. But, as I try to show below, even in Gates’ account, there doesn’t seem to be much in the incident that would justify the fuss he is making.
The Post’s Krissah Thompson doesn’t view it this way, however. Here is how she begins her front-page story:
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spent much of his life studying the complex history of race and culture in America, but until last week he had never had the experience that has left so many black men questioning the criminal justice system. . . .
“I studied the history of racism. I know every incident in the history of racism from slavery to Jim Crow segregation,” Gates told The Washington Post on Tuesday in his first interview about the episode. [note – really, everyone single one?] “I haven’t even come close to being arrested. I would have said it was impossible.”
Instead, in a country where one in nine young black men are in prison, where racial profiling is still practiced, the arrest of a renowned scholar on a charge of disorderly conduct in front of his house last Thursday has fueled an ongoing debate about race in America in the age of its first black president.
Gates is actually admitting plenty here. For if he has lived as a black man in America for 58 years without ever being mistreated by the police, to the point that he believed being arrested was an impossibility in his case, that speaks rather well for the police forces of America.
To be sure, one horrific incident might be enough to negate the lessons of 58 years of experience. But what actually happened to Gates here?
There seems to be no dispute that Gates arrived home after a trip to China and found himself locked out of his own house. He and his driver (also African-American) therefore began pushing against the front door so that Gates could enter. A neighbor then called the police to report what looked like an attempted break-in.
The Post reporter characterizes these events this way: “The sight of two black men forcing open a door prompted an emergency call to the police.” But the reporter has no basis for claiming that race played any part in the call. Indeed, Gates himself says he is “glad that someone would care enough about my property to report what they thought was some untoward invasion.” Whatever else one might say about Gates, he is more rational on the subject than Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post.
What happened after the police officer arrived is in dispute. Here is Gates’ account as reported by the Post:
The white officer who arrived found Gates in the house (the driver was gone) and asked him to step outside. Gates refused, and the officer followed him in. Gates showed him his ID, which included his address, then demanded that the officer identify himself. The officer did not comply. . . .[Gates] then followed the officer outside, saying repeatedly, “Is this how you treat a black man in America?”
The police deny that the officer refused to identify himself. But notice that even in Gates’ version, the officer merely confirms that Gates owns the house and then withdraws. Gates keeps the matter alive by following the officer and repeatedly accusing him of racism.
The police say that Gates did this in a “loud and tumultuous” way. The officer tried to calm Gates down, according to the department, but Gates would not desist, saying instead that the officer did not know who he was “messing with.”
Gates does not deny these specific assertions, at least not as far as the Post reports. Instead, he argues that nothing he did justified his arrest. He also claims that, because he weighs only 150 pounds, he would not “give flak to a big white guy with a gun.” But in his own telling (as reported by the Post) he did give the officer some flak. And if the officer was behaving in an unthreatening way (as seems to have been the case), and if Gates was very angry (as seems to have been the case), then he might well have acted “loudly and tumultuously” notwithstanding his slender build. Keep in mind that Gates must have been extremely tired after his long trip. Anger, in response to even a well-intentioned intrusion by the police, would be a natural reaction.
Nonetheless, abusing a police officer is a low percentage move, and this is true regardless of racial considerations. Another Post reporter, Neely Tucker, makes this very point in a piece called “When the Cops Are Called In, Anger Is a Dangerous Weapon to Brandish.” Thus, while Gates may or may not have a case that his conduct did not rise to a level that would justify an arrest, his claim that his arrest was racially motivated seems weak on the facts presented in the Post’s sympathetic story.
Still, if Gates wants to study racial profiling and other issues relating to the criminal justice system, more power to him. It isn’t exactly unexplored territory, but it’s bound to be more exciting than the genealogy of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the topic Gates was researching in China.