• August 29, 2015

Our National Postracial Hangover

With the Gates fiasco, the rosy glow has faded

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My first reaction to watching the unfolding Saga of Skip Gates's Cambridge Arrest was that America's postracial bubble, like its recent economic troubles, was about to pop. The fact that some observers had never bought into the story of a race-free America purged of its past sins by a watershed presidential election had done little to diminish either that narrative's moral resonance or political weight.

Since America's racial disparities remain as deep-rooted after Barack Obama's election as they were before, it was only a matter of time until the myth of postracism exploded in our collective national face. That they would rear their ugly head in the form of an intellectual and racial cause célèbre is fitting, since black scholars and activists have been engaged in a robust debate over the meaning of race in the Age of Obama.

Suddenly Obama's recent declaration before the NAACP—that American blacks have come farther than at any other time in our country's history—seems suspect, our national progress undone by the fact that Gates's predicament has become a metaphor for the nation's legacy of racial discrimination.

Our euphoria over Obama's historic election as the nation's first black president hit an unexpected speed bump in Cambridge, Mass., home to the bastion of academic decorum, of all places. The arrest on July 16 of the prominent Harvard professor of African-American studies in his own home has sparked a media firestorm that has interrupted the growing national consensus that America has been writing a new chapter in its tortured racial history.

Fresh from filming his latest PBS documentary in China, the 58-year-old Gates found himself locked out of his well-appointed Harvard home. With the help of his African-American taxi driver, Gates successfully entered his house—but not before arousing a suspicious neighbor, who phoned the police. What happened next is the subject of competing accounts. The police report characterizes Gates as an academic turned thug: loud, rude, uncooperative, and menacingly dangerous after being asked to produce identification. Gates has countered with an entirely different scenario, one wherein he obligingly showed his Harvard identification only to be met with rude behavior. After asking for and being refused the officer's badge number, Gates was arrested. Why several police officers were needed to secure a nearly 60-year-old man who relies on a cane to get around is one of many questions asked in ensuing days.

Like a bright, streaking comet, Gates's arrest has made its way around blogs, newspaper columns, Web sites, TV shows, Twitter, and via good old-fashioned word of mouth. Not long after the 20th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee's controversial and racially charged film, Do the Right Thing, the urbane, Ivy League educated Gates, perhaps the most important and distinguished black academic of his generation, suddenly found himself a graybearded stand-in for Lee's doomed character Radio Raheem, whose assault by New York City police officers leads to the film's still powerful denouement.

Part of this story's momentum rests with Gates's public persona. Known as a bridge-builder between black scholars and white liberals, Professor Gates is the pre-eminent scholar-entrepreneur of his generation; one of the architects of a revitalized African-American-studies discipline, who has successfully built networks between academe and business, politics, culture, and the media. If this can happen to Skip Gates, whose investment in the American Dream has carried him to the highest levels of the nation, then what chance does an ordinary black person stand?

A shaken Gates has publicly expressed outrage and shock about his arrest but found newfound empathy and solidarity with the plight of ordinary black people, whose encounters with the criminal-justice system rarely end with all charges dropped, as in Gates's case. Nor do they become national and international news stories. Television coverage coincided with Gates's sharing his story on July 22 on CNN's "Black in America 2." Later that evening—at a news conference on health care, where he received a question about the professor's recent arrest—President Obama chimed in to let Gates know he had his back.

The Gates incident illustrates the complex overlap between race and class (a working-class white policeman and one of the country's most celebrated scholars who is black and now is forced to confront his blackness squarely in the mirror; blog and radio comments that sometimes carry an undercurrent of resentment at the privileged life of this particular black man). The silver lining to the entire sordid affair is the long-delayed opportunity to draw sustained attention to the interwoven problems of race, structural poverty, and the criminal-justice system—a project that Gates himself has publicly committed to pursue.

The story's race and class dynamics are complicated. Gates is well-connected enough to have the president of the United States refer to him as a friend, yet black enough to be racially profiled in his own home. The plight of tens of thousands of ordinary black men and women, sometimes educated, more often not, remains invisible and thus far more vulnerable.

The Gates controversy pulled Obama into his first major racial storm since the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. wrangle. At his news conference, Obama responded that anyone would be angry, the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," and that America had a long history of racial profiling. Police unions expressed disappointment, while civil-rights activists loudly applauded his words. (Obama later said that he "could have calibrated" the wording of his intial reaction differently, and that both Gates and the Cambridge police may have overreacted.)

The arrest may very well be remembered as an unexpected turning point in our national conversation about race. That dialogue, of course, progresses only in fits and starts, occasioned as often by racial turmoil as by racial triumph. President Obama's rise to power elicited genuine excitement and emotion among Americans and citizens of the world about the thrilling possibilities of democracy. It also gave credence to a larger narrative, one supported by the symbolic evidence of Obama's election, that racism was dead. The story was all the more compelling since the vestiges of Jim Crow and lynching are, for many people, something only to be read about in history books or viewed in documentaries.

The story also proved to be dangerous.

An overwhelming number of black people continue to reside on the margins of society, a permanent underclass seemingly fated to violent and early death, incarceration, poverty, and disease. Inadvertently, the public images of President Obama and, until recently at least, Professor Gates, supported the narrative of a postracial America. After all, how could a country where a black man can become president and another be one of Harvard's most powerful professors be racist?

Perhaps the final lesson to be learned from all of this, one that Gates himself seemed to acknowledge, is that for all of America's racial progress, and in spite of the very real class divisions within the black community, race retains stubborn political and social bonds among black people that require shared affinity, identification, and sacrifice. Even in the Age of Obama (or perhaps especially in the Age of Obama), the struggle for racial and economic justice remains fraught. The Gates incident has become a new metaphor for America's still-tormented racial politics. More than a century ago, the black scholar and civil-rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois explained that African-Americans were too often seen as "problems" to be studied, discarded, lynched, or ignored, but never as full-blooded human beings whose progress remained vital to the success of the nation's democratic experiment. If this controversy helps to spur a national conversation about race and democracy, one that unblinkingly examines the persistence of black poverty and incarceration even as it exults in Obama's election, then we will at least inch forward on the long road toward racial maturity, where the idea of a postracial American future remains an unrealizable but worthy goal rather than a political fait accompli.

Peniel E. Joseph is an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt and Company, 2006). His new book, From Black Power to Barack Obama, will be published in January by Basic Books.


1. 11159818 - July 25, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Racism will forever remain a chronic problem like a disease that can be hopefully managed but never cured. This event is a tragic wake up call of one step forward but two steps back. The reality is that racism is always there, always and we must remain forever watchful although it is so very tiring to be on guard each and every day. The weight that most minorities carry everyday is real and heavy and it takes a tremendous toll. Do you think that this would ever happen to a white professor being approached in his own home by a group of African American policemen? I think not.I bet that someone of the same stature as Dr. Gates in white skin would have easily been identified by any officer, be they African American, White, Hispanic etc.. The shame of it is that they were not even aware of who he was.I mean you think they would have recognized him in a few seconds. Perhaps if he would have been a sports figure the face would have been more familiar to them. That of course is tragic.

2. tbdiscovery - July 26, 2009 at 09:59 am

I really hope that everyone on here doesn't fall for this. I sometimes cringe at how liberal and pro-victimization some of the nonsense on the CHE can be. Does it occur to anyone here that not everyone is euphoric over Obama and that not everyone places Gates or African-American studies scholars on a pedestal? And could you ever imagine that (gasp!) it has nothing to do with race? This is just a tired repeat of victimization ploys that keeps African-American studies scholars at the forefront of their own hate.

3. reincarnate - July 26, 2009 at 08:50 pm

For someone who touted himself as "post-racial" Obama has proved himself --- stupidly --- to be emired in racial poltics and racial hatred if the past, as are many African-Americans over forty. It seems Obama DID hear those radical Wright sermons after all. He set race relations, and certainly race/police relations back forty years too. Then he acts bewildered why the story, and his role in it, garnered so much public attention. Is this guy on drugs or just ignorant? The role of the president is not to speak for or against anyone person; he slandered this cop from the bully pulpit, and if I was the cop, I'd sue him. Obabma has shown he is not only insensitive, but divisive.

4. quidditas - July 27, 2009 at 07:02 am

"Gates has countered with an entirely different scenario, one wherein he obligingly showed his Harvard identification only to be met with rude behavior." Well, why show your passport to the local cops when you can-- apparently-- get into the country without it.

5. landrumkelly - July 27, 2009 at 08:40 am

There is more than race at work here. There is the identification of much of America (and especially white America) with the police, the military, and any and all symbols of institutionalized authority. I find it most fitting that an African-American male should be in the media limelight for doing nothing more than challenging a cop. We as a country and as a culture are far too deferential to the police. We should routinely ask them to identify themselves and to explain themselves. The nexus between something like a "ruling class" and the police/military establishment is nothing new, nor unique to this culture. It was obviously pervasive in, for example, El Salvador when Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in 1980--but that is only one more high-visibility incident, while many, many more cases go unnoticed or unaddrressed in many cultures. This nexus between police power and economic power is the real problem, and institutionalized racism is only one way that it plays out--although arguably the most insidious and offensive. I say, congratulations to both Gates and Obama for telling it like it is. Obama has no reason to apologize for his comments (and he has not actually retracted them or apologized for them). Gates is to be lauded for his willingness to challenge arbitrary authority, in the same way that he has made a life-long challenge to arbitrary economic and social disparities. It is a shame that only the challenge of a well-known and relatively wealthy African-American male is the one that gets media attention and the interest of an entire culture. This sort of thing happens every day to less advantaged persons of all racial and cultural backgrounds. I have yet to hear the policeman apologize. Perhaps he did. Apologies from authority figures are, in any case, extraordinarily rare. We should all challenge authority and not merely racism. Challenge authority because there is a moral imperative to do so, but do remember the list of martyrs who died because they did precisely that. Institutionalized authority by its nature does not like to be challenged, which is all the more reason that it must be. Landrum Kelly, Jr., Ph.D. Chair, Department of History and Political Science Livingstone College (Yes, I am seen as a "white" guy at a "black" institution, but my forebears were Cherokee and Irish who also knew the force of institutionalized reation against those who were different.)

6. 11332462 - July 27, 2009 at 09:23 am

Does anyone think (or has anyone responsibly argued) that the Obama election is evidence that we are now in a "race free America"? It was a watershed event, to be sure, but, it many ways, it simply underscored that race continues to be a salient feature of the American landscape. Indeed, given the context of the 2008 election -- a tremendously unpopular incumbent, eight years of Republican control of the White House, a challenger with a huge financial war chest, etc. -- it is surprising that Obama didn't win much more handily. That he did not is strong evidence that race continues to matter -- a lot. Rather than building (and then tearing down) a straw man, we should focus on assesing what the Gates incident (and, more importantly, the reaction to it) says about our evolving struggle with racial consciousness.

7. jhough1 - July 27, 2009 at 10:19 am

We need a post-racial President. I supported him strongly because he said he would talk both to red America and blue America. He has totally failed on the first count. One of the very best financial analysts, Meredith Wilson, predicts 13% (official) unemployment in 2011 and 2012. If it is over 11% percent, the President will have 25% approval from whites and 90% from black, with disastrous results He and the academic entrepreneurs need to try to reach out and unite America. An embrace of a respected figure in the black community, even an official appointment, is desperately needed. His name is Bill Cosby.

8. cmmoore1 - July 27, 2009 at 10:28 am

This never was about "race." It is all about neighborhood safety. Perhaps the neighbor was doing what she thought best in light of the fact that she probably did not know that is was Professor Gates trying to get into his own home. Perhaps she should get to know her neighbors better. Perhaps Professor Gates should try to get to know his neighbors better. Is Professor Gates trying to promote a "race" issue by living in the predominantly white neighborhood? Perhaps we should hear from from the enighbor who reported the potential break-in. Has anyone ever heard her side of the story?

9. kotchis - July 27, 2009 at 11:42 am

The CHE article and some of the comments pay too much attention to the post-2008 election political and social and cultural context and not enough attention to the specific details of the event. Professor Gates and Officer Crowley both seem to have made bad choices that aggrevated and intensified their apparent mutual distrust and both refused to exercise their "duty to retreat" in a dangerous situation. To make this incident somehow emblematic of "American civilization in 2009" or some such equally grandiose category of analysis is unwarranted.

10. 11134078 - July 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

There is a problem, I think, that makes the interwoven issues of class and race trickier yet. In a word "Harvard." Harvard professors do not merely sup with the gods on Olympus, they are themselves gods. So any conversation with mere mortals is a matter of noblesse oblige. It is highly likely that a tired Prof. Gates, eager to get into the house and take off his shoes, did not feel particularly obliged.

11. cicuta - July 27, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Get over it! Pass the page and work hard for your country so that it can be brought back to its glory days. Back to the era of the "american dream", not this "american nightmare". Obama? a good man. History will tell what is too early to judge. To define Mr. Obama as a "black man" is inaccurate and misleading. On one hand, he is not your typical black man in this country. He is well educated, a Harvard graduate, a former Senator, now our President. On the other hand he is of mixed race, the son of a white mother and her family who raised him. Were he from one of the ghettos in the South, from a broken family, and a high school dropout I doubt he would have made it into the White House; the same could be said of a white person with similar socio-economic characteristics. Is it all about race?

12. davidcornwall - July 27, 2009 at 02:02 pm

Well, if I presented my faculty id to the police who were trying to determine my address, i.e. as on my driver's license, I wouldn't be surprised when they still had questions about where I lived. It wouldn't matter what color I was or what color they were. The tapes of the whole thing are supposed to come out. The issue might be police rudeness that set off Gates. Or, it might be that Gates is like some wealthy friends who like to pretend that they're pinching pennies - - it's an identity that they prefer and don't have the courage to shed.

13. blesstayo - July 27, 2009 at 03:10 pm

You have to be inside the fire to know what the fire feels like. Professor Gates has now tasted the fire. I have been stopped many times by the experienced and matured White Police Corps who were randomly searching for young black men who transport drugs across states. Each time I presented my Univeristy's Id, they apologize and let me go!!! The so-called rookie police corp in this case needs some growing up! To my fellow blackmen, is it worth it to engage inexperienced young, egoistic white corps in a debate when they stop or question you? I won't invest my emotion in that!

14. 12111360 - July 27, 2009 at 03:17 pm

Let Americans - of ALL races and colors -- decide for themselves whether this is an incident that warrants a "national dialogue on race." Suggestion: Release the transcript of the incident. Let's get the FACTS, pure and simple. President Obama ("I don't have all the facts, but...")and writers like Peniel E. Joseph appear to be more interested in using this incident as further proof of a hopelessly racist white America than using it as a vehicle to get to the truth. Instead of continuing to cite the "two versions" of the icident (Gates' account and that of police officer James Crowley), let's get the "one and only version." The "teachable moment" for Obama, and those who want this to be a matter of race, is to not make judgements before one has the facts.

15. fizmath - July 27, 2009 at 04:01 pm

I object to the assumption of the author and other commentators that this is a racial incident. As of yet we don't have enough evidence for this allegation.

16. gharbisonne - July 27, 2009 at 05:42 pm

It's a shame this piece is so sloppy about details. Gates was not locked out; his front door had been jammed by a previous burglary attempt. He was not racially profiled; the original 911 call didn't even mention race. He wasn't arrested inside the house, but outside it. Too bad the facts don't match the narrative of oppression.

17. juanitamwoods - July 27, 2009 at 06:26 pm

If anyone is even thinking there is some nonsense called post-racial America, then I have a Bridge to Nowhere, in Alaska, to sell ya. Absolutely no one has even discussed why a news correspondent would ask President Obama about an arrest of a Black man in Cambridge at the end of a press conference on health care/insurance reform. If Bush were still president would the question have been asked? NO. If it were an arrest of a White Harvard professor, would President Obama have been asked his opinion of the arrest? NO. If Gates was not a black Harvard Scholar but a mechanic, would anyone even care? NO. That one question at the end of the press conference and Obama's response have been the 24/7 news fodder for the last week and all TV news outlets are ever so grateful. I wish someone would ask the news reporter if he would have asked that question of any white president........now let's really engage in that "teachable" moment.

18. histanth - July 27, 2009 at 08:45 pm

It all depends on perspective. Sounds like a Harvard professor and international icon who suddenly was treated as an ordinary citizen. As a professor I suppose I ought to see some merit in the idea that famous Harvard professors ought to be immune from arrest but for some reason I can't quite wrap my mind around it.

19. ulyssesmsu - July 27, 2009 at 09:04 pm

The author of this article apparently doesn't realize, or doesn't acknowledge, that not everyone is as elated about Obama's election as he is. There is a huge segment of America that is not at all happy about the election of America's first socialist-marxist president. Furthermore, did he really expect the racial situation to change overnight just because a black president was elected? Such incredible naivete is very difficult to understand--or justify.

20. myoka - July 27, 2009 at 09:51 pm

I think we are missing this "teachable moment" by overlooking the fact that African-American men in this country are treated differently by police officers. For the longest time, the media has portrayed African-American and Latino men as violent, dangerous, criminals even when evidence points to the fact that other races are just as violent. So, instead of engaging in a racial discourse where we all display our racial loyalties (Blacks supporting Prof. Gates and whites siding with the officer involved), let's focus on the heart of the matter here which is that racial profiling is institutionalized in this country. The conversation we ought to be having now is how we can move away from profiling people based on skin color. No one should be judged based on the color of their skin. Too many sins have been committed because of racial hatred. It is time we turned that page once and for all. Otherwise, we will fail to learn the lessons of history. And failing to learn history's lessons only means continuing to repeat those injustices that are so shaming to the human race.

21. chandrak - July 27, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a racist himself. I have worked with HBCUs for the last 38 years and found them very discriminative. They have a chip on the shoulder all the time. Whenever any thing happens, they will jump and say "I am being discriminated because I am Black." No one talks about Black racism in America. It is about time to pay attention to Black racism. Barack Obama is a racist since he jumped on police officers and called them "stupid." He should remember that he is the President of the United States and should be doing other important things such as creation of jobs, education, etc. Instead, he showed himself as a big racist. The Mayor, a black woman, jumped on the police officers. She is a racist and sees racism everywhere when they don't get what they want. Racial profiling is a two way street. I have witnessed Black racism on other races in the United States. Blacks can get away with murder since they are Black. The writer of this article is a big racist himself. He is trying to blame the whole world. It is a big joke to read the article and how he is trying to blame other races.

22. joelkline - July 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

We should state the facts correctly before anyone, including Peniel E. Joseph, accuses anyone of racism. The person who called-in the incident was not a neighbor, it was a woman driving by and saw two people prying open a door with a crowbar. Although it has been misreported, the woman was not a neighbor and did not know Gates. Second, the officer, initially alone, asked Gates to step out onto the porch after Gates said he lived there. The officer said he was investigating a robbery. Let me see, you are distinguished professor at Harvard but cannot infer that breaking into your own house with a crowbar might be interpreted by people as a break-in? Gates yelled some stuff at the officer and initally would not come out. He finally came out with a college ID. Really? When did he become special? Do you think if it was a white college kid who someone saw using a crowbar that the cop would treat it differently? Or a Hispanic lady? When did a college ID with no address substitute for Driver's ID? Was it racists to ask for the same kind of ID that you ask for from every college kid, driving violator, or suspect of any crime? Or should the cop have KNOWN that this was an Elite HARVARD faculty which would immediately mean that he wouldn't lie or break the law. This is not racism. This is elitism. Cops do not care if you teach at Harvard or that you have been selected as 1997 most influential person. They care about the facts in front of them. Gates refused to supply the facts. This was not racism. He got treated like anyone else who lives in an urban area who crowbars his house and he didn't like it.

23. rickinchina09 - July 28, 2009 at 04:06 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education editorial staff saw fit to post an article by an academic who sides with Dr. Gates in this dispute but does not offer an opposing (or even neutral) view. This reveals much about the staff's own ideological leanings and is indicative of a wider problem in American academic today. Voices of dissent, and those who strive for objectivity in reconciling conflicting interpretations of events, are squelched by simply being absent from the online record. While the staff's action might not have been malicious, its effect amounts to partisan journalism. Now, onto Dr. Joseph's specific claims. To begin with, it rather a leap in logic to conclude that the Gates incident negates the President's observation that race relations in the U.S. have improved significantly. One would have to be quite cynical--or in need of a pretext--to rush to such a judgment, as I suspect Dr. Joseph unfortunately has. He then proceeds to discredit the euphoria surrounding Obama's election and to suggest that if a renowed Harvard intellectual can be subjected to such treatment at the hands of police, then what can befall ordinary African Americans. What is intriguing but not surprising to me is that neither Dr. Joseph nor Dr. Gates (or for that matter the President himself) has considered the very real possibility, as others have noted here, that this incident is as much about class as race--and probably moreso. I have yet to hear a prominent Black commentator, other than Juan Williams of FoxNews and NPR, openly acknowledge the extent to which Gates himself has erred in this matter. Aside from his abusive behavior toward Sgt. Crowley, he has shown himself to be elitist. Moreover, the irony is not lost on me that while insisting he has been the victim of racial profiling, he has himself presumed that the White officer involved was motivated in his actions by race. Profiling presumes guilt before innocence, at least to some degree, and so did Gates' accusations. Meanwhile, erudite commentators like Dr. Joseph only add to the hyperbolic reaction to this incident which Gates himself ignited. It is a defensive posture to be sure, perhaps borne of collective insecurity, or a fear of fending off some imagined return to the bad old days. However, this time both academics have singled out the wrong culprit. And their continued sense of entitlement--which permits them to make unsupported allegations without rebuke (at least within their own racial community)--only serves to exacerbate the situation. Dr. Gates was not confronted by a mob, by a hooded klansman with a torch, or even by a bigot bent on his destruction. Instead, he was met by an officer of the law trying to do his duty in a neighborhood rife with recent burglaries (including a previous attempt at the same residence). So while he might or could or even should have managed a different outcome, he is not responsible for the collective weight and memory of the Black experience in America. And therein is where are concern should lie. Race relations will not improve until the "teaching moment" sought includes some serious collective reflection.

24. 11134193 - July 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

11134193 - 9:45 am - EDT. These conversations/analyses have been going on through part of the night and restarted about 4:00am this morning (7/28/09). Everybody has been blamed! Is anyone left to be blamed? I'm certain this will not be the last message to be sent on a non-topic. The story is: man tries to enter his house; can't open door; wants to gain entry and forces door; neighbor or passer-by spots activity at door and interprets it as break-in; police notified; officer interogates "suspect" to break-in; and all hell breaks loose with suspicions and charges, feelings from historical incidents and ghosts from the past join in; everybody's angry. MORAL to the story (might be) if you see somebody breaking in: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS! STORY CAN GET OUT OF HAND. Consider that if the resident were interested in the house he/she might have an alarm and protection service. Besides, this could have been a lot worse. For example: an absent-minded professor (what, they don't have those at Harvard?) breaks into the wrong house (not his) and the owner kills the intruder. Intruder turns out to be a black Harvard Professor; resident turns out to be white homeowner with gun; nobody observed break-in and nobody called police until after shooting; obviously this would still be a racial issue and the police would still be wrong because they did not know that a possible break-in was about to take place. The police would have been charged with negligence, irresponsibility and too busy counting doughnuts and cups of coffee to be aware of what was going on. What comment would President Obama utter about the "break-in," the black Harvard professor, the racist white resident who shot the black intruder, and the role of police who deal with innocent black people everyday? And what would Rev. Wright have said about all of these (replaced) events? Now it's your turn to write or rewrite the sequence to fit your fears, phobias and biases. Don't let evidence get in the way! Be creative and dramatic (this could turn into a novel). P.S.: The Chronical of Higher Education would have come out on the wrong side of my story, too. Have a good day everybody!

25. bekka_alice - July 28, 2009 at 02:17 pm

I was 17 when I was stopped on my own front porch by police looking for a burglary suspect in the area. He was wearing a black jacket and had short hair and a ball cap on. I, a female, had long hair, a very form-fitting floor-length black dress, and was waiting for a friend to pick me up to go to a movie. I got to spend twenty minutes with the cops, and knew if I was belligerent I'd get hauled in so I didn't say what I wanted to, "Do I LOOK like a boy to you?!?!?!?" I was 38 when I helped stop a carjacking in the (bad) neighborhood where I work. The police left me sitting on the curb while they argued with the victim to try to get her (hysterical) to calm down and tell a straight story, argued with each other, totally ignored me for thirty minutes until I told them that I worked across the street (in the nicer buildings) and needed to get back from lunch, and was going to leave if they didn't need my statement. Suddenly I wasn't a person who lives in the neighborhood, and they straightened up, started "ma'am"-ing me, wrote down my statement as if it were going to make any difference and showed an altogether different attitude. I'm a white female, by the way, and subjected every time to the arrogance and attitude of the police I deal with by no choice of my own. If I had been the person on that porch, and I had been less than perfectly cooperative with the police, I'd expect to have problems too. I _don't_ think this is a good thing - I think the police as a whole are too prone to egomania and severe rudeness with the people they serve. I remember thinking the day of the carjacking about how great I thought the kids were who also stopped to help, with the girls comforting the driver and helping to find the shoe she'd lost in the fight, and the guy helping me to scare off the assailant. When I gave up on waiting and spoke up I got to go back to work, but these young credits to the neighborhood were still standing around and I should have pointed that out to the officer too since they were young enough to be uncertain. I don't know how the police expect neighbors to help them or think of them as the "good guys" when they are total jerks. I believe that there is just as much an economic element and an egomaniacal element driving police behavior as any racial element and all of them need to be addressed.

26. jaysanderson - July 28, 2009 at 03:12 pm

Release the 9-1-1 tape of the incident. Rather than continued speculation and victimhood parade, we might know whether this is a story of a racist cop on a power trip, or an obnoxious academic too important to answer questions from the authorities. The White House beer summit is silly. Release the tape.

27. edresearcherinca - July 28, 2009 at 04:31 pm

1134193: Do you really think this is a non-topic? The way I see it, the event and subsequent discussions of it touch on a number of important issues, including race, class, authority, and people's willingness to make claims of "fact" about things that are uncertain / people's willingness to cherry-pick evidence that supports their arguments while ignoring counterevidence. So I'd like to suggest a different moral: we all need to become more skilled and attentive in distinguishing between *actual knowledge* and *things we believe but might be wrong about*, more open to acknowledging when "facts" are in question, etc. cmmoore1: I disagree that this "is all about neighborhood safety." I agree that investigating the report of a potential break-in was about neighborhood safety, but Sgt. Crowley's choice to arrrest Gates does not seem to be about safety, as there was no reason to believe that Gates posed a threat to anyone, even if he was yelling on his porch (and we don't *know* if he was yelling; Crowley claims he was, and Gates claims he wasn't, and the police recording that was released is inconclusive, as there is no sound on the recording that clearly comes from Gates). In this same vein, rickinchina09 and joelkline: we do not know if Gates' "behavior toward Sgt. Crowley" was "abusive" / we do not know that "Gates yelled some stuff at the officer." And joelkline: there's no evidence that crowbar was involved -- no mention of a crowbar in the incidence report and no mention of a crowbar in the 911 call; this is an invention on someone's part (perhaps yours or perhaps the part of someone you heard or read commenting on this; I don't know who). I could go on, but hopefull you all get the point. Another potential moral: we'd be well to attend not only to what happened in an event, but to people's experiences of what happened and why people might experience the same event differently. In that context, I think there's much of value in what Peniel Joseph wrote. And jaysanderson: the 911 tape has been released, as has the radio exchange between Crowley and the dispatcher. These answer some questions (for ex., Crowley was mistaken in claiming that the caller had said it was "two black males with backpacks"; the caller didn't initially mention race, and when asked by the dispatcher said that she thought one of the men might be Hispanic and wasn't sure about the other, and she referred to suitcases, not backpacks, and she made clear that she was uncertain whether it was a break-in or if the men lived in the house) and not others (in particular, one can't clearly hear Gates in the radio exchange, and one only hears Crowley when he's on the radio, so it doesn't establish whether Gates yelled or made any racial references, nor whether Gates provided his driver's licence at the time in addition to his university ID, nor whether Crowley did or didn't provide his name and badge # when asked).

28. priceeqn - July 29, 2009 at 03:07 am

It's quite interesting to me that so many people have such strong opinions on this matter. To be sure, if any white person had showed his ID, and the address was in fact that address, I highly doubt the person would be arrested for no good reason. The real truth is that this would never, at least in any part of the US that I've ever been too, happen to a white person! I had a situation, living in one of the most elite old-money, Mayflower descendents galore enclaves in the US, where a friend had actually lit things on fire in his yard and blown up some cherry bombs and such. We were shortly after approached by a cop, who asked what we were doing and for our names and addresses. He went to his patrol car, spoke on the radio for several minutes, then came back and apologized for bothering us! He said, "I'm so sorry for bother you Mr. ________ and Mr. _______." This indicated to me that the cop was well aware that our families, the fellow I was hanging around with was my cousin, could have him fired and paying out money for a phony harasment suit very easily and acted accordingly. Now, what would be the odds of two non-white people lighting fires and blowing things up, even in their own backyard, getting arrested? Hummmm... I think I know the answer. Regardless, white Americans of my generation have been taught that we have an equal playing field when we don't, if you're not a socioeconomic elite, preferrably white!, you're not going far in life. Period. You're likely to get less nutritious food, not be maximally healthy, not reach full possible physical or mental growth, and not likely to get a quality education. And of course have you seen the lifespans of the average black or hispanic compared to the average white? Significantly shorter and they're more likely than us whites to die of easily treatable maladies. That's the way it is and we whites don't like to admit it.

29. rickinchina09 - July 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Landrum Kelly's comment (see above) are very unfortunately indicative of a mindset that pervades American college campuses today. It is borne of contempt for authority rather than healthy questioning of it, despite rationalizations to the contrary. To ennoble Dr. Gates' unprofessional and unwarranted tirade is inexcusable and yet those with a martyr complex about imagined moments of speaking truth to power will not recognize it for what it was. I have rarely encountered a far Left academic is acknowledges much less tries to understand the military subculture in this country and, by extension, the community of law enforcement officers. Theirs is an antagonistic stance and has no interest in seeking common ground, which is elitist at best. But Professor Kelly epitomizes the very attitude which Gates dispalyed. At least the latter, we have reason to believe, is not usually given over to such unseemly personal reactions to authority. Colin Powell, who endorsed Obama for President, said on CNN yesterday that he learned from an early age how to react to authority, especially the police. But he was not suggesting that he adopted a coping mechanism, rather a common sense manner for treatment of those held with the often dangerous responsibility of defending the rest of us. No, this incident runs much deeper than race or class, it speaks to a creeping and insidious trend in academia to disparage those who would deign to protect the rest of us, and to deny to them the benefit of the doubt, however justified. And, alas, we as a society are the worse for it.

30. edresearcherinca - July 29, 2009 at 01:58 pm

rickinchina09: Please identify what you are taking as evidence of "Dr. Gates' unprofessional and unwarranted tirade." Dr. Gates' account and Sgt. Crowley's account are rather different, and I have yet to hear a recording of the exchange that allows us to determine what was actually said by each of them (and I don't know if one exists). If you have a link to such a recording, I (and, I suspect, others) would be quite interested to hear it, and I'd appreciate your proving the link. If not: we can probably safely assume that where the two accounts agree, we know what happened, but where the two accounts disagree, we should refrain from making statements that present one or the other side as if it were a fact rather than a contested claim.

31. wturnertsu - July 30, 2009 at 03:41 pm

President Obama has labelled the entire episode as being "a teachable moment." It could very well be such, if we, the American people, have the courage and honesty to make it so. To begin, whether it was race, class or clash of egos that led to Skip's arrest and President Obama's fortutious comment, is, in my humble opinion, irrelevent. What is more significant, and what has been given very little, or no, consideration is this: Prosecutor(s) representing the city of Cambridge determined that the charge was unsustainable and directed that it be dismissed. Despite that fact, Prof. Gates will still have an official record of arrest for "disorderly conduct" in his personal record. That record, when reported by private companies paid to conduct background checks, will only indicate the arrset. Typically, those companies do not report dispositions. If a person has been arrested and all credible evidence prove that he or she should not have been, then shouldn't the record of arrest, as well as the charge, be automatically dismissed? That is not the case today. And, because it is not, the over-zealous, misguided or sometimes outright racist acts of law enforcement personnel continue to negatively impact the right of African American males to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. You see, many employers, particularly Walmart, pay background checkers to investigate prospective employees. In Gates' case, they will simply report that he was arrested for "disorderly conduct." If Skip has completed the interview process, including the U.A. after less than a couple of beers with the President, Walmart will discard his application to be a greeter in either of its stores, Super Centers or traditional stores!!! If Gates case doesn't force a thorough review of the overall role of the criminal justice system in systemmatically depriving African Americans, especially males, of their constitutional rights, then the posts here, and elsewhere, and all of the ink and film devoted to it these last few days aren't worth a hill of beans! Directly related to the issue of bogus arrests is the practice of employers and individuals continuing to discriminate against persons for non-violent offenses, which, in many cases, are decades old. To continue to penalize individuals, when the debts that the law requires them to pay, have been paid, is persecution! The law provides that offenders be prosecuted, not persecuted! One would think that in a nation of so many so-called "Christians," such would not be the case. But, believe it or not, it is in those states with the most mega"churches" where ex-offenders are having the greatest difficulty re-entering into society. We need a national debate, immediately followed by a change in policy. A policy which prohibits employers from denying employment to individuals based simply upon age-old arrest records; regulate background checkers and require them to state final disposition, whenever they report an arrest; require insurance company to prove the actual differential in risk between individuals without arrest records and those with arrest records at various intervals since their arrests; prohibit insurance companies from charging more premiums than the differential in risk would dictate; prohibit employers from asking ANYTHING about individuals' legal matters in excess of seven years, unless it involved inappropriate contact with minors or children less than 18 years of age; repeal the so-called misguided three strikes rules; and, require that all non-violent offenses of ex-offenders be automatically purged from all files, federal and state, when said ex-offender has lived a law-abiding existence for ten years or more, since the termination of probation, sentence, and /or parole. It seems to me, the position outlined above is the least a post-racial society could do to rectify what the entire world knows has been a racially-discriminatory system that has produced such a great discrepancy between the percentage of non-white to white ex-offenders and offenders. A christain-like people could do no less. Discuss Gates. But, do not stop short of discussing the greater injustice inherent in racial profiling on the larger body of men of color.

32. rickinchina09 - July 31, 2009 at 03:34 am

Edresearcherinca asks for evidence of Dr. Gates unprofessional and unwarranted tirade as if common sense alone isn't sufficient to reach this conclusion. As this incident will now not likely be settled in a court of law despite Dr. Gates' earlier wishes to the contrary and as this is a public forum I don't feel obligated to rely on legal language. Suffice it to say that for a well educated and relatively privileged man like Gates to resort to name-calling and ranting is unprofessional. Not only does the police report clearly indicate as much but the two other officers on the scene have corroborated Sgt. Crowley's story. Other officers have vouched for his integrity. So essentially you have three officers' stories against that of Gates. Oh, and lets not forget what one of the onlookers, a neighbor, told reporters. So go ahead and engage in wishful thinking if you must but it doesn't diminish the embarrassment that Gates ought to have felt over his conduct, regardless of the outcome. Now we've also got another academic from Texas Southern University, who evidently knows Gates personally since he refers to the man by his nickname, lamenting the incident. While Mr. Turner is correct in saying that Gates will have a record for disorderly conduct, I'm sure he'll be able to wear it as a badge of honor--as Jackson and Sharpton have before him--among his many supporters in the clan of victimhood. Besides, does anyone here really believe that Gates will suffer in terms of his academic reputation or his professional standing? He has already received innumerable messages of support from the sycophants in his department, including online at The Harvard Crimson. Moreover, he himself plans to exploit this incident as a teaching moment as so seems to be embracing the opportunity to discuss it. Anyone with an ounce of common sense who doesn't have an axe to grind or an agenda to promote can see this much. I concur that there are undoubtedly periodic instances of racial profiling elsewhere in this country. But Gates and Obama picked the wrong man at the wrong time to put into their crosshairs. The fact that they did speaks to their own lack of discretion and, yes, professional (not to mention egalitarian) judgment.

33. rburns - July 31, 2009 at 10:57 am

The menu should have included baloney sandwiches. Gates is a member of Harvard's faculty and can't find a teachable moment in his normal day? When will the elite in this country, benefiting from all of its rewards and benefits, stop claiming also to be the Victim Class?

34. edresearcherinca - July 31, 2009 at 12:15 pm

rickinchina09: Yes, I ask for evidence, because there are conflicting reports, and common sense can be wrong. For those facts that are in dispute, I think it's important to say that they're disputed instead of taking one or the other side and presenting it as if it's a fact. You seem to assume that just because something is written in a police report, it's necessarily true. I don't assume that; we know that police have sometimes filed false reports. Note that I am not claiming that a false report was filed in this case; I'm only saying that it's possible that some of the report is false, and that in the absence of good evidence, I do not know how accurate the report was. (As an aside, Crowley also wrote in the incidence report that the 911 caller, Lucia Whalen, told him that "she observed what appeared to be two black males with packpacks." But if you listen to the 911 call, you find that Ms. Whalen said that she saw "two gentlemen" and "two suitcases," and when subsequently asked by the dispatcher about the men's race, Whalen said "One looked kind of Hispanic but I'm not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all." And Whalen's attorney, Wendy Murphy, says that Whalen did not say anything about race to Crowley when he arrived. I wonder who you believe there -- Sgt. Crowley or Lucia Whalen?) You write "you have three officers' stories against that of Gates." But police have sometimes lied on behalf of colleagues. Again, I am not claiming that the other officers *are* lying here, only that it's possible. I am saying that in the absence of a recording, and given the conflicting accounts, and given evidence from other cases that sometimes the person who was arrested lies and sometimes the police lie, and given plenty of evidence from controlled studies that different people can experience the same set of events in quite different ways, we shouldn't pretend to know what was said. As I wrote above, I think the world would be better off if we all became more skilled and attentive in distinguishing between *actual knowledge* and *things we believe but might be wrong about*, more open to acknowledging when "facts" are in question, etc.

35. rickinchina09 - August 02, 2009 at 03:10 am

If the police report is indeed inaccurate or incomplete it would have been brought to light by now, as the matter involving the racial identity of the suspects was. The fact that this hasn't happened and that at least two other officers, one Black and the other Hispanic, have not called into question its content but instead have vouched for the integrity of Sgt. Crowley is sufficient evidence for me. But those who engage in wishful thinking because they can't bear to blame a Black academic for falsely representing the situation to cover his posterior and promote himself will not be convinced. Gates himself is guilty of racial profiling, an irony which is not lost on those of us who rely on both common sense and fair play to state our views.

36. minnesotan - August 02, 2009 at 09:09 pm

This non-issue is such a waste of time and ink. Why the Chronicle correspondents continualy fall for this bread and circuses sensationalist crap is beyond me. The only reason this story even made the news is because there was finally nothing left to say about Michael Jackson. This story is fit for Jerry Springer or the Enquirer, but not the Chronicle of Higher Politicization, erm... Education.

37. edresearcherinca - August 03, 2009 at 10:36 am

rickinchina09: I'm not sure if I understand some of what you've written. Your first sentence makes me think that you believe that "the police report" and "the matter involving the racial identity of the suspects" are separate issues. They're not: in his incidence report, Crowley makes a claim (quoted above) about what Whalen said on the scene about the racial identity of the two men. Whalen disputes what Crowley wrote (see, for ex., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krns821geC0, about 7:20 into the clip). I'm not sure whether you're saying this doesn't count as a possible inaccuracy in his report being "brought to light" (because Crowley's fellow officers have "vouched for [his] integrity" and none have "called into question" what he wrote about his exchange with Whalen), or if you're only saying that Sgt. Crowley may have made a false statement about Whalen in the incident report, but you don't think that's a reason to wonder about the accuracy of anything else in the report, or if you mean something else. Yes, Figueroa and Lashley have spoken in support of Crowley and his choice to arrest Gates (at least, I'm assuming that these are the two officers -- one Hispanic and one African American -- to whom you refer); however, if you look at the evidence, you'll find that neither they nor any other officers besides Crowley were initially on the scene; they can't possibly know what occurred before they arrived, including any of Whalen's exchange with Crowley, or Crowley's initial interaction with Gates. Vouching for Crowley's general integrity and agreeing with the arrest are not evidence that the incidence report is accurate. (As an aside, although the Cambridge Police stand by the arrest, as do some other police, a number of police around the country have said they disagree. And lawyers have stated that Gates' actions do not meet the standards of disorderly conduct and that Crowley likely violated Gates' 4th Amendment rights by entering Gates' house without either permission or a warrant.) Just to be clear, I think many of the claims I've read on both (all?) sides of the discussion of these events have been problematic. I'm questioning _your_ claims here because I'm having an exchange with _you_ (and I started the exchange with you because you insisted on repeating -- as a claim of fact -- something that I'd already noted was disputed); you shouldn't assume that my lack of questions/comments about your other claims means that I agree w/ you -- it's only a sign that I don't see the point of continuing to pursue your particular claims. I'm saying that we *all* need to become better at attending to what constitutes good evidence and what it's evidence _of_ (e.g., the 911 recording is not evidence of what Whalen and Crowley said on the scene, so I should have been more careful in my comment about this in my first post), better at distinguishing between beliefs and knowledge, better at refraining from presenting our beliefs as if they were facts, more open to the possibility that our beliefs are mistaken (including the possibility that we've misunderstood something) and committed to looking not only for evidence but also for counterevidence. I'm harping on this because I believe that people's tendency to conflate beliefs and knowledge, etc., is a significant problem in societal interactions about all sorts of things, not just this particular case. And I'm harping on it on the Chronicle website because researchers should be exemplars of how to work with evidence when facts are contested. To be honest, I'm astounded that an academic thinks common sense is the appropriate thing to rely on in such a situation.

38. etjatm - August 03, 2009 at 09:18 pm

Interesting commentary from Dr. Williams... " In the case of State of New Jersey v. Pedro Soto, et. al., the attorney for the black defendants moved to suppress evidence from traffic stops deemed to be discriminatory enforcement of the traffic laws. (4) On March 4, 1996, New Jersey Superior Court judge, Robert E. Francis, in granting the motion, held that "unrebutted statistical evidence of disproportionate traffic stops against African-American motorists established de facto policy of targeting blacks for investigation and arrest and thus established selective enforcement violating the equal protection and due process clauses. The motion to suppress evidence, resulted in criminal charges being dismissed against all 19 defendants. (5) What is racial profiling? Does it serve any purpose? In the most general terms, racial profiling is a process whereby people employ a cheap-to-observe physical characteristic, such as race, sex, height, weight and accent, as a proxy for a more costly-to-observe characteristic. It is prejudice, in the sense of the word's Latin root - the act of pre-judging. Another way to define pre-judging is that it is the practice of making decisions on the basis of incomplete information. Since the acquisition of information is not costless, it requires the sacrifice of resources (time and/or money), we all seek methods to economize on its acquisition. Prior to making a decision, people never obtain all of the information available or possible to obtain. For example, all prefer low prices to higher prices for a given purchase, but we never canvass all prices. In choosing a mate, we never obtain all the information about our prospective spouse. In these and other decisions, we decide that a given amount of information is "enough" and we search no more. Consider the following example of how much information is acquired prior to a decision. Suppose upon entering a room one is unexpectedly confronted with the sight of a fully grown tiger. A fairly reliable prediction is that person would endeavor to leave the area in great dispatch or otherwise seek safety. All by itself that prediction is uninteresting. More interesting is the explanation for the behavior. Would the person's decision to run be based upon any detailed information held about that particular or would the decision be based upon the person's information about how he has seen other tigers behave, what his parents have told him about tigers or tiger folklore? Most likely the individual's decision would be based upon the latter. He simply pre-judges or stereotypes the tiger. The fact that it is a tiger is deemed sufficient information for action. What is popularly termed racial profiling represents pre-judging, where policemen disproportionately stop black motoristsor pedestrians for identification, questioning and contraband searches. We might ask: can one's racial characteristics serve as a proxy for some other characteristic not as easily observed? The answer is unambiguously in the affirmative. Knowing a person's race allows one to make some fairly reliable generalizations because race is correlated with a number of social and physical characteristics. Knowing that a man is black, one can assign a higher likelihood of his having diseases such as prostate cancer, (6) sickle ce ll anemia (7) and hypertension. Similarly, knowing that a Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry is one can assign a higher likelihood for Tay Sach's disease. (8) Knowing a person's race allows one to assign a probability to a host of socioeconomic characteristics such as scores on achievement tests, wealth status, criminal record, or basketball proficiency. Given this reality, we can no more reliably say that a policeman is a racist when he assigns a higher probability that a black is a criminal, and stops him for questioning or search, than we can reliably say that a physician is a racist when he assigns a higher probability of prostate cancer to his black patient and screens them more carefully. Jesse Jackson once commented, "There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery - then look around and see somebody white an feel relieved." There are certain high crime areas of a city - maybe it is New York's Harlem or Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia - where taxicab drivers have been assaulted, robbed and murdered. Out of safety concerns, they seek to identify and hence avoid passengers they suspect might ask to be driven to these high crime areas where there is a higher likelihood of assault by either the passenger or someone else. Both white and black taxi drivers have refused to pickup black passengers. This is racial profiling but it does not indicate taxi driver racial preferences. The writer has experienced racial profiling. One instance was when I resided in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an exclusive Washington suburb. A Saturday chore, resulting from having a corner house, was to pick up trash discarded by motorists. Once while performing this chore, a white gentleman approached me and offered me a job doing clean up work on his property. When I thanked him and told him that I would be busy the rest of the day working on my dissertation, he apologized profusely. Another instance was when I was a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I had gained considerable weight and was determined to get in shape during my year at Hoover. I went visit to Stanford's basketball court looking for a pickup game, white guys were arguing with one another to have me on their team or to be on my team. Much to their amazement, angry amazement I might add, I could barely get up and down the court, much less do anything constructive when I arrived. I concluded that much of their anger was, "How dare I be black and can't play basketball well!" The reality is that race and other characteristics are related, including criminal behavior. That fact does not dispel the insult, embarrassment, anger and hurt a law-abiding black person might feel being stopped by police, watched in stores, being passed up by taxi drivers, standing at traffic lights and hearing car door locks activated or being refused delivery by merchants who fear for their safety in your neighborhood. It is easy to direct one's anger to the taxi driver who passes him by or the merchant who refuses to deliver. However, one must also ask the why question. The answer is not that the taxi drivers or pizza restaurants do not desire dollars coming from black hands. A better answer is that they may fear for their lives and safety. The villains of the piece are the tiny percentage of the black community who prey on both blacks and whites and have made black synonymous with crime. One cannot unambiguously say that racial profiling represent racist preferences. Racial profiling is practiced by black policemen as well as white policemen. Demanding an end to racial profiling by police, is to put more black people at risk. To the extent that black people commit more crimes than white people, to the extent that black people are the major victims of black criminals, to the extent that police stops catch criminals, eliminating racial profiling would deprive law-abiding blacks protection from criminals. Recognizing that racial profiling is a valuable policing tool does not release policemen from behaving lawfully and courteously when they make stops. Finally, while easily observed physical characteristics might be proxies for some other not easily observed characteristic, one need not be dumb. I could be walking down the street and see a green person. That does not mean I should go up to the person and accuse him of being from Mars. I might seek additional information or exercise caution in my assertion." http://economics.gmu.edu/wew/articles/fee/profiliing.html Much like police officers asking for identification?

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