It took less than a day for the arrest of Henry Louis Gates to become racial lore. When one of America’s most prominent black intellectuals winds up in handcuffs, it’s not just another episode of profiling – it’s a signpost on the nation’s bumpy road to equality.
The news was parsed and Tweeted, rued and debated. This was, after all Henry “Skip” Gates: Summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale.
MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. Acclaimed historian and PBS documentarian. One of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. Holder of 50 honorary degrees.
If this man can be taken away by police officers from the porch of his own home, what does it say about the treatment that average blacks can expect in 2009?
Earl Graves Jr., CEO of the company that publishes Black Enterprise magazine, was once stopped by police during his train commute to work, dressed in a suit and tie.
“My case took place back in 1995, and here we are 14 years later dealing with the same madness,” he said Tuesday. “Barack Obama being the president has meant absolutely nothing to white law enforcement officers. Zero. So I have zero confidence that (Gates’ case) will lead to any change whatsoever.”
This much is known for sure: The 58-year-old professor had returned from a trip to China last Thursday and found the front door of his home jammed shut.
Gates entered the back door, forced open the front door with help from a car service driver, and was on the phone with the Harvard leasing company when a white police sergeant arrived.
Gates and the sergeant gave differing accounts of what happened next. But for many people, that doesn’t matter.
They don’t care that Gates was charged not with breaking and entering, but with disorderly conduct after repeatedly demanding the sergeant’s name and badge number. It doesn’t matter whether Gates was yelling, or accused Sgt. James Crowley of being racist, or that all charges were dropped Tuesday.
All they see is pure, naked racial profiling.
“Under any account … all of it is totally uncalled for,” said Graves.
“It never would have happened – imagine a white professor, a distinguished white professor at Harvard, walking around with a cane, going into his own house, being harassed or stopped by the police. It would never happen.”
Racial profiling became a national issue in the 1990s, when highway police on major drug delivery routes were accused of stopping drivers simply for being black. Lawsuits were filed, studies were commissioned, data was analyzed. “It is wrong, and we will end it in America,” President George W. Bush said in 2001.
Yet for every study that concluded police disproportionately stop, search and arrest minorities, another academic came to a different conclusion. “That’s always going to be the case,” Greg Ridgeway, who has a PhD in statistics and studies racial profiling for the RAND research group, said on Monday.
“You’re never going to be able to (statistically) prove racial profiling. … There’s always a plausible explanation.”
Federal legislation to ban racial profiling has gone nowhere since being introduced in 2007 by a dozen Democratic senators, including then-Sen. Barack Obama.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said that was partly because “when you look at statistics, and you’re trying to prove the extent of profiling, the information that comes back is that there’s not nearly as much evidence as we expect there to be.”
But Davis has no doubt that profiling is real: He says he was stopped while driving in Chicago in 2007 for no reason other than the fact he is black.
“Trying to reach this balance of equity, equal treatment, equal protection under the law, equal understanding, equal opportunity, is something that we will always be confronted with. We may as well be prepared for it,” he said.
Amid the indignation over Gates’ case, a few people pointed out that he may have violated the cardinal rule of avoiding arrest: Do not antagonize the cops.
The police report said that Gates yelled at the officer, refused to calm down and behaved in a “tumultuous” manner. Gates said he simply asked for the officer’s identification, followed him into his porch when the information was not forthcoming, and was arrested for no reason. But something about being asked to prove that you live in your own home clearly struck a nerve – both for Gates and his defenders.
“You feel violated, embarrassed, not sure what is taking place, especially when you haven’t done anything,” said Graves of his own experience, when police made him face the wall and frisked him in Grand Central Station in New York City. “You feel shocked, then you realize what’s happening, and then you feel it’s a violation of everything you stand for.”
And that this should happen to “Skip” Gates – the unblemished embodiment of President Obama’s recent admonition to black America not to search for handouts or favors, but to “seize our own future, each and every day” – shook many people to the core.
Wrote Lawrence Bobo, Gates’ Harvard colleague, who picked his friend up from jail: “Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America.”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.
Photo: Henry Louis Gates