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One Year Later, Does the Henry Louis Gates Arrest Mean Anything?

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The first question the publishing of Charles Ogletree's new book, The Presumption of Guilt (Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $25.00), raises is a cynical one. One year later, does the Henry Louis Gates arrest really mean anything, or does Ogletree just see an excellent opportunity for a quick buck? At a recent Q & A on the book, an adorable five-year-old girl in the back of the room asked Ogletree why he wrote it. As he launched into a somewhat unconvincing explanation of the link between the Gates arrest and the little girl's potential future as a Harvard Law Student, the woman sitting next to me drew a dollar sign in the air with her finger.

It is tempting to dismiss the book as an attempt to cash in on an event that was ludicrously overblown even when it happened. Certainly, some of Ogletree's colleagues seem to feel this way. At a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I recently overheard three Harvard professors discussing the book. Each was skeptical of "Tree's" motives, and seemed to think he was exploiting a long-dead non-issue for his own gain. One did partially defend him, arguing that Ogletree was, in fact, trying to use the arrest to make a larger point. "I think he really does feel it's important," she said. "Yeah, but the money doesn't hurt," the loudest of the three quickly interjected. All three nodded.

But such dismissal is easy, a year after the fact. We can quickly forget that at the time, the incident was a major national racial blow-up, an embarrassment for the president that opened the sores of police-minority relations like nothing since perhaps the Rodney King beating. Even the Oscar Grant shooting failed to excite the kind of wide media attention and presidential action that Gates's five-minute verbal tussle on his front porch did.

To briefly refresh the details: On Thursday, July 16th, 2009, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was returning home from a trip to China. Arriving at his house, he discovered that his front door was jammed and would not open, causing him to have to break in with the help of his driver. A neighbor, spotting the two men breaking in, called the police, who arrived shortly afterward. Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley came to Gates' door and asked him to step outside, causing Gates to point out that he was in his own home. Gates produced ID, but Crowley demanded more information, and an argument ensued, in which Gates accused Crowley of racism and Crowley became increasingly angry. At the conclusion of the five-minute incident, Gates was in handcuffs, being led away by Crowley on charges of disorderly conduct.

The charges were soon dropped, but after President Barack Obama gave a remarked off-the-cuff comment at a press conference on health care that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly," he ignited a major media firestorm. Accused by some of sacrificing fair-mindedness to take the side of his (black) friend, Obama was forced to temporarily abandon his health care message and launch into racial-healing mode. A week-long attempt at backtracking culminated in a "Beer Summit" at the White House, at which all three men (plus Joe Biden, inserted for racial balance according to Ogletree), worked through their differences over mugs of booze.

The question now is whether the event had any wider significance. Did it tell us anything lasting about race relations, class differences, or police abuses of power? Or was it simply the clash of two enormous egos, the self-righteous cop and the elitist professor? The loud bookstore professor didn't think it meant much. "It's just a celebrity thing!" he said angrily. "It's like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan getting arrested."

But the Gates arrest wasn't an isolated incident. Ogletree's book includes accounts of 100 distinguished black men who have experienced egregious racial profiling, and tells many stories about members of elite professions who have been mistaken for gardeners or asked to hold strangers' coats. People with stellar academic and social credentials, from Leon Higginbotham to Johnnie Cochran, all fail to escape the humiliating injustice of racial profiling. The Presumption of Guilt demonstrates effectively and alarmingly the continuing universality of institutional racism.

But there's something a little disturbing about Ogletree's focus on black men of high status. Leaving aside the obvious exclusion of Hispanics or black females from his examples, which Ogletree acknowledges and says would have clouded the specific issue he is pursuing with the book, the outrage at incidents in which elites have been targeted seems to suggest that their cases are somehow more unacceptable than those of the destitute. The Gates incident received coverage (and a book deal) not because a black man was being unjustly arrested, but because a black Harvard professor was being unjustly arrested. But shouldn't every one of the thousands of cases of police racial bias be treated with equal outrage?

I asked Ogletree about this. "It is true that if this hadn't been Henry Louis Gates, nobody would heard about it." He admits that the prestige of Harvard plays into the outrage. "There's a town-and-gown element to this," he says. Professor Gates was incensed not just because he felt like a racial target, but because he felt as if he should be exempt from racial injustice as a result of his status. "Do you know who I am?" Gates shouted at Crowley, suggesting a view that important citizens should receive an exemption from police misconduct, which is only for the poor.

But Ogletree insists that he is not trying to focus solely on injustices directed at the upper class, but rather trying to channel the Gates attention into a wider debate. Ogletree says that in 1995, he wrote a book that covered racial profiling in general, a well-researched, comprehensive account of structural racism in policing. "Nobody bought it," he says. "You didn't buy it." Studying the Gates arrest is necessary, he believes, in order to "start the conversation" nationally about black men's interactions with police. The reason this incident in particular matters is that it shows that the phenomenon truly does affect every black man, whether he is homeless or has a Yale PhD. The event acts as definitive proof that race matters, and that poor black men are targeted not because they are all criminals, but because of implicit racial biases.

The case, however, is far from the perfect test of the system that Ogletree sees it as. An independent review committee tasked with investigating the incident reported in June that both Gates and Crowley failed to "ratchet down" the tension when they had opportunities. Ogletree concedes that Gates shouted phrases like "You don't know who you're messing with," as well as ill-advisedly asking for Crowley's name and badge number. And with Crowley's untarnished prior record on race issues (including teaching racial sensitivity classes), the links between race and the arrest become even blurrier. We can sense that race had something to do with it, but to pinpoint precisely what is impossible.

So whether there are any universal truths to be gleaned from the Gates incident is unclear. It did show the President's vulnerability on race issues, and the ease with which Obama's carefully-crafted air of racial fairness can be shattered. In Ogletree's phrasing, the "acted stupidly" remark "blackened" the President, impolitically demonstrating to Americans that he, too, could be sensitive to the indignities suffered by a particular racial group. Any such sensitivity apparently destroys his "post-racial" image.

Ogletree's book is helpful, then, in reminding us of the need to pay further attention to the interactions of communities and law enforcement. It is at its best when it uses the Gates arrest as a jumping-off point to examine the continuing tensions between black men and police nationwide. It is less useful when dwelling on the event itself, which has so many variables (race, hubris, miscommunication, Harvard, media sensationalism, etc.) as to be unable to provide a satisfactory lesson about any of them.

The Presumption of Guilt may seem like an opportunistic work, but if Ogletree can use his book tour to ignite debate about the idea of the "presumption of guilt" for minorities generally, and not simply rehash the Gates issue, he will make a crucial contribution to the national dialogue on race and justice.