The Prism of Race Made a Scholar Appear to Be Just Another Suspect

From The Washington Post:

I lived in Cambridge a little more than 15 years, working as a reporter. Lived within walking distance of Harvard University, where the scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. has long taught. You’d see him coming out of the Harvard Coop, or standing at the famous newsstand in the square, or just walking down the street, bopping along. A lot of “hi’s” shouted out at him. If you’re privy to the intellectual discourse of the nation, of course you knew of his fame. Physically, he’s on the short side and walks with a limp. He doesn’t, in the least, appear threatening.

So, I loved living in Cambridge, except when I didn’t, which was when I’d just landed at Logan Airport in the middle of the night from a foreign reporting assignment and had to hop a taxi home. I’d insist the taxi driver wait until I was safely inside. I lived alone and wanted to make sure the place was empty. As well, I didn’t want anyone walking by thinking I was trying to break into my own apartment.

So here’s Gates the other day, just back from China, in his house (a tony neighborhood that I wouldn’t have been caught fooling around in after, say, midnight, and by fooling around I mean walking home, because then, as a black man, you want to cross the street before the group of white females does, which you find insulting) after struggling with the jammed front door, and he suddenly notices police officers out front. Someone has called the police on him: a black man in a pricey neighborhood seen trying to get into somebody’s home. The squad car rolls right up. (That’s real estate reality for you: The police car might not have gotten to one of the streets over in mostly black Roxbury so quickly.) Gates wonders why the police are there; they explain why, a call about a possible break-in.

And then it probably starts to whoosh in Gates’s own mind, like a desert wind that must peak before leveling off. Here we go again. Heated words because Gates, in these flashing moments, is not a scholar who studied at the University of Cambridge (in England) but a suspect. Forget the Harvard and personal ID’s, he’s in that touchy nexus and zone of black skin and law enforcement. And that peculiar zone can be exposed day or night. And when it beams on, it can show that the black man is carrying a lot of historical weight — weight that Gates himself has put into scholarship and documentaries — surrounding the heaviness of race in America. It’s suddenly pent-up anger and jet-lag words flying on that wind that can’t be taken back and skin color and real estate and cold eyes and I’m not breaking any law so just leave me alone please, dammit, please. Please.

But the wheels are already rolling, off to the police station.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. talks about his arrest and the Outrage of Racial Profiling in America.

From The Root:

TR: How did this escalate? What are the laws in Cambridge that govern this kind of interaction? Did you ever think you were in the wrong?

HLG: The police report says I was engaged in loud and tumultuous behavior. That’s a joke. Because I have a severe bronchial infection which I contracted in China and for which I was treated and have a doctor’s report from the Peninsula hotel in Beijing. So I couldn’t have yelled. I can’t yell even today, I’m not fully cured.

It escalated as follows: I kept saying to him, ‘What is your name, and what is your badge number?’ and he refused to respond. I asked him three times, and he refused to respond. And then I said, ‘You’re not responding because I’m a black man, and you’re a white officer.’ That’s what I said. He didn’t say anything. He turned his back to me and turned back to the porch. And I followed him. I kept saying, “I want your name, and I want your badge number.”

It looked like an ocean of police had gathered on my front porch. There were probably half a dozen police officers at this point. The mistake I made was I stepped onto the front porch and asked one of his colleagues for his name and badge number. And when I did, the same officer said, ‘Thank you for accommodating our request. You are under arrest.’