This past Thursday, the renowned Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates,
Jr., author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, was reminded
that sometimes, there's just one.
It is the way that a woman who worked down the street from Prof. Gates' home, Lucia Whalen, looked at him as he stood on his porch with his luggage, attempting to nudge his jammed
front door open. That look that somehow confuses a nearly sixty year
old bespectacled professor with a blue blazer who cannot walk without
the aid of a cane, as a crafty black burglar practicing his illicit
deeds at 12:30 PM in the afternoon.
It is the way that Officer James Crowley, who responded to Ms.
Whalen's misguided vigilance, looked at the MacArthur fellowship
winner standing in his own foyer, as if to make humiliatingly literal
the W.E.B. Du Bois lament from The Souls of Black Folk, "Why did God
make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?" Gates,
understandably exhausted from the return flight from China he had just
taken, responded to the officer's insistent questioning of his
identity with frustration -- but did indeed prove his ownership of the
residence and right to be there.
One cannot help but be reminded, thinking of Professor Gates' home,
where photographs of he and Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Nelson
Mandela must have looked down at plenty of black men from their places
on the walls, of the Dave Chappelle routine where white officers
assault a black man in his living room. Proud of their "top-notch"
police work, they conclusively proclaim, "Apparently, this n----r
broke in and hung up pictures of his family everywhere. An open and
To his minuscule credit, Officer Crowley's report claims that he did
realize it was Gates' home early into the incident. But to what
hopefully is his eternal regret, instead of leaving the situation
immediately once the crime he was called in for was proven to be a
mistake, Crowley continued to exchange harsh words with Gates and
unnecessarily radio for backup. The officer then demanded that
Professor Gates step out of his home, and in front of a gathering
crowd of neighbors and onlookers, a man who was one of TIME's 25 most
influential Americans in 1997, was arrested for "disorderly conduct."
This charge, always unfailingly ambiguous, is easily recognized by
many blacks as an offense that is not in any legal code, but still
manages to elicit punishment from authority daily: failure of a black
to show proper deference to a white police officer. Gates' refusal to
be humiliated in his own home and insistence on calling the incident
what it was -- racial profiling -- was more than anything, a direct
challenge to the fragile hierarchy of superiority and propriety that
Officer Crowley attempted to enforce. The war of words between Crowley
and Gates was a contest about dignity, imbued with the intricacies of
hundreds of years of domination and deference between white and black,
felt most acutely in the rituals of policing and criminal justice.
Arguably the most profound existential dilemma that racism presents to
those that are confronted with it is what could be called an "utter
substitutability." In its most relentless form, it is the wholesale
indifference to human individuality. It seeks to erase our singularity
in the pursuit of some gain, whether it be material, psychological,
emotional, or political. It is the terrifying reality that sometimes,
in the course of a police investigation, criminal trial, act of
violence, or discriminatory practice, any black person can stand in
for any other, and be made to bear the burden for all.
The singular promise of the Barack Obama era, even if his health care,
education, and economic stimulus plans are unsuccessful, is that it
signals what is a decisive shift in what racism means for black life.
The truth of the matter is that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will be fine.
The event undoubtedly is traumatic and will take a psychic toll on
him, his colleagues, and his students -- who must certainly be
wrestling with a deep unsettling of their sense of belonging in a
place like Cambridge -- but the consequences of this incident will be
limited. Beyond his own personal courage and resilience, Gates'
counsel, the esteemed law professor Charles Ogletree, has already seen
the charges dropped. Moreover, Gates' celebrity ensured that his case
was watched with close scrutiny by global media, black activists, and
intellectual elites of all backgrounds. Someone like Gates does not
remain "substitutable" for long anymore.
But if we can step back and see how easily this happened to someone
like Gates, arguably the most famous academic in the country, it
should encourage us to be more vigilant about the toll that continuing
racial disparities in law enforcement are taking on blacks,
particularly the working class and poor, in America. The
disproportionate policing of amorphous criminal statutes like
"disorderly conduct" and "disobeying the lawful order of a police
officer" have served to introduce thousands of otherwise law-abiding
people into the criminal justice system. This puts undue stress and
costs on police forces and communities, undermining the capacity to
stem crime at its roots. When applied to juveniles in particular, this
type of policing only stigmatizes and alienates youth, exposing them
further to deleterious influences that ultimately encourage them to
turn away from school and legitimate employment.
To make matters worse, this expansively punitive penal system fuels
employer discrimination against blacks. A seminal experimental study
by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager shows that even black men without
criminal records receive fewer callbacks for entry-level employment
than whites with criminal records. One can only expect this
discrimination to expand far beyond employment when criminal court
proceedings are instantly available online in most states, and some
non-violent convictions are grounds to deny students access to federal
These are not the stories that make headlines in news outlets from CNN
to TMZ. There are not Harvard lawyers on retainer to expunge their
records and win them noelle prosequi judgments. Al Sharpton is not
offering to stand at their arraignments, and student activists are not
chomping at the bit to pressure their arresting officers. Instead, a
nation turns aside in an indifference built sturdily upon received
"wisdoms" of race and class, ignoring a mountain of evidence about the
catastrophic isolation of an increasing swath of Americans. All, of
course, while at the same time applauding themselves for a
"post-racial" politics that spends more time admonishing aspiring
rappers than criticizing disproportionate suspension and expulsion
rates, public school funding disparities, and overcrowded prisons.
These are the type of people who are confined, often for the duration
of their lives, to that one way of looking at a black man Gates
experienced again for a brief moment. In the just outrage we have
summoned in defense of this brilliant scholar, it is fitting testimony
to his life's work that we should give voice to their plight as well.
Brandon M. Terry is a doctoral student at Yale University in Political
Science and African American Studies. He is also a graduate of Harvard
where he received an AB in Government and African and African American
Studies, and studied under Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
CORRECTION: Lucia Whalen is not a residential neighbor of Professor Gates, she works nearby in Cambridge about one hundred yards from his home. This description of her and the sentence ending the second paragraph, which was based on the misinformation that she was a neighbor, have been removed accordingly.
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