Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Racism, Still

The Gates story is inflating beyond control. For anyone who doesn't know, it seems that a distinguished Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct during a confrontation with a Cambridge, MA police officer investigating a reported break-in attempt at Gates' home.

From the newspaper account and the police report it would appear that Mr. Gates became outraged that a police officer would question him about the alleged break-in.

On the other hand the police office was indeed called by someone who witnessed two black men on the front porch apparently trying to break into the home on Ware St. in Cambridge.

Mr. Gates allegedly yelled at the police that the only reason he was questioned was that he "was a black man in America". In my view Mr. Gates was overly sensitive to his race as the precipitating factor in the officer's behavior which angered the officer.

On the other hand the police office should have used more common sense, and as soon as Prof. Gates' identity was confirmed he should have simply apologized for the misunderstanding and left the premises.

My take is that they both were guilty of feeling insulted and not accorded the respect to which each felt entitled.

All in all, a petty and provocative reaction by a Harvard professor and an over reaction by the police officer. In any case the latest news is that the charges have been dropped. Good.

There is plenty of real racism against which to fight without diluting and trivializing what in my opinion, is still the biggest problem facing this country, true racism.

The President didn't help either. He should have taken the opportunity to encourage dialogue on this most important issue facing the nation. Instead he took sides after saying he didn't know all the facts in the case. A missed opportunity, in my view.


Alice F. said...

Hi Harvey, I don't think I have ever visited your personal blog before. You are terrific!!

So I heard this story as reported on PBS news last night and the details were a bit different from what your newspaper described. According to the report, when Gates returned home from a trip, he couldn't get into his house through his front door as the door was jammed. So he entered from the back of his house with his own key. He then tried to unjam the front door with a friend's assistance. When the police arrived (having been told that two black men were breaking into a house) he was asked to produce identification and prove that he was indeed the owner of the house and a Harvard professor as he claimed. And he got really mad. (If I were accused of breaking onto my own house I would get really mad too.) He was literally hand-cuffed, taken into custody and "booked." (See linked article about this whole incident: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/20/henry-louis-gates-jr-arre_n_241407.html.)

I heard Gates talk some years ago and the fascinating thing to me is that one of the things he talked about then was the fact that blacks in America live with the fear that they will be taken as felones and criminals when doing what we all do in the course of our every day lives. I think there is more here than you suggest.

We'll have fun with this one when we talk this weekend!

Harvey said...

"I think there is more here than you suggest. "

As the story unfolds I'm coming to the conclusion that Professor Gates was far less to blame than the policeman.

Either could have defused the situation but the police apparently let common sense take a back seat to "procedure"

Alice F. said...

The reports I've seen describe this policeman as being known for racial profiling, etc. But I haven't followed up on the truth of these reports. Bottom line is that this is not a good story for improving race relations in the Cambridge community.

Anonymous said...

Is the Gates case an exanple of the evil white police protecting a black man in his home?

Yesterday, Juam Williams, a reporter for NPR, told a story of how he had accidently set off his home security alarm and called the police to tell them why the alarm went off. The dispatcher told Williams a car had already been dispatched to his home and to just retell the story to the officer.

Williams said when the officer got there he met him at the door and the officer asked for a photo I.D. and if there was anyone else in the home. Williams said his wife and children were and the officer asked Williams to step outside while the officer walked through the home. Williams complied.

After just a few minutes the officer came outside and explained to Williams how the police had to be sure that there was not someone inside holding a gun to William's wife's head and asking him to step outside was cautionary measure to get Williams away from anyone who might be inside attempting to harm him or his family (out of hearing range) and that by asking Williams outside, it would have also allowed Williams the chance to tell the officer if anything was wrong where people inside could not hear him.

Williams said that the Gates thing was NOT a case of racial profiling and that Professor Gates should have just been polite understanding that the police were there because a call had come in on a suspected B & E.

Williams said he was glad the officer that responded to his alarm took the time to make sure his family was not in harm's way.

Juan Williams is African American.


Martin said...


A Harvard ID, the gold card of academia, may get you into the faculty parking lot and onto the university campus but it has about the same clout as a bus pass if you’re attempting to get to an airport boarding gate or, as has been illustrated by this incident, to prove to police who you are and where you reside. Mr. Gate’s insistence that this was sufficient identification delayed the disengagement of this whole incident while the police had to radio a request for Harvard Security to confirm Mr. Gates’ identity and legal residence. All the time while he regaled them for racial profiling.

It is a sad commentary on life in America today that it is replete with widespread firearm access, drug use, stalking, spousal abuse, pedophiles, restraining orders, street gangs, and social predators that the police must consider a full spectrum of scenarios when approaching a situation that, in the perfect clarity of 20-20 hindsight was so benign. Fortunately, the acquaintance of most citizens with these threats is through the media; police officers deal with it daily. They have been trained to work to a protocol and a demeanor that may seem brusque but which takes into account a full range of circumstances, thereby ensuring the safety of all persons involved no matter the scenario. We don’t have to look further than our capital city to understand what happens when these protocols are not followed in the face of what appears to be a benign situation; it can make the difference whether a police officer goes home to his family at the end of a shift.

Mr. Gates was simply asked to step outside his home to talk to the police officers so they could explain why they were there and establish that he legitimately belonged there and was not under threat from other persons who may have been in hiding within the house.

Consider how quickly this matter could have been resolved if he had simply stepped outside, listened to an explanation why the police had visited him, produced his driver’s license, confirmed he was not under physical threat from other persons that may have been present. And then, if he desired, he could have asked the officer for his identification, requested that the officer relay his thanks to the neighbor who was watching his house in his absence and finally bid them farewell.

Harvey said...

Agreed, Martin. I can't say with certainty, as Mr. Gates did, that this was a racially motivated incident. That Mr. Gates chose to make it one is at the heart of this problem. Choice.

Both the officer and he made poor choices. Either one might have defused the situation, but both made choices driven by emotion.

As in so many situations, local, state and federal, we see sides being chosen and territory being staked out. The goal seems to distill down to only one possibility - someone must right and someone must be wrong.

We have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

Most often there is right and wrong and we should not be afraid to consider all the evidence carefully and come to a conclusion even if it doesn’t agree with our first impressions of the situation.


Harvey said...

So who was "right" and who was "wrong"?

Was the policeman right to arrest someone who clearly was in his own house, not threatening to anyone?

Was the professor wrong to feel any disrespect?

Would he have been treated any differently if he were white?

Sorry, but both were 'wrong', both were 'right' in my view.

Martin said...


Neely Tucker, Washington Post Colunist, in fourteen column- inches has put as fine a point on the Cambridge incident as I have read or heard. He has, in a humorous and inoffensive way, used a similar personal experience to illustrate how such events get out of control.

His editorial ("No Upside to Shouting at Cops") is included in Thursday's (30 July) issue of the Providence Journal is highly recommended. You can also find it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/21/AR2009072102782.html.


Harvey said...

I already read it. He said it very well.