First, it was voting while black. Then, it was driving while black. Now, it’s being at home while black.
What’s next? Breathing while black??
I am paraphrasing the Rev. Al Sharpton’s remarks here. For the record, I don’t always agree with Sharpton. But in the case involving the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of America’s most distinguished scholars, Sharpton is right on the money.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard of this heinous case: Gates was arrested by Cambridge, Mass. police on July 16 because they thought he broke into his own home near Harvard University.
Gates, 58, director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, had just arrived from the airport when he realized his front door was jammed and he couldn’t get into the house he rents from Harvard. He asked his driver for help.
Supporters say Gates was immediately considered a suspect because officers were summoned by a female caller who said she saw “two black males with backpacks on the porch,” one of whom was “wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry,” according to a police report obtained by The Associated Press.
When the officers arrived, Gates was already inside and on the phone with the real estate company that manages the property. He had come in through the back door and shut off the alarm, he said.
Police said Gates was arrested after he yelled at an officer, accused him of racial bias and refused to calm down after the officer demanded that Gates show him identification to prove he lived in the home.
Gates’ lawyer, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, said his client showed his driver’s license and Harvard ID – both with his photos – and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He followed the officer onto the front porch as he left his house and was arrested there.
The charge of disorderly conduct was dropped on Tuesday.
But this is far from over. Gates said he harbors more anger toward the officer who arrested “the first black man” he saw and arrested him on a “trumped-up charge.” He said he wants an apology from the officer. He also said he planned to talk to his legal team about the next step.
Gates said he is now inspired to work on a documentary about racial profiling.
“I’m outraged,” Gates said in extensive comments made to TheRoot.com, a Web site he oversees. “I can’t believe that an individual policeman on the Cambridge police force would treat any African-American male this way, and I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I’m astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their race.”
A lot of black men can relate to Gates’ experience, including those of us who are also professionals. A few years back, officers from a local police department – with guns drawn – pulled me over in my car for no reason other than that I matched the description of a robbery suspect. Once I showed them my ID and convinced them I was not the man they were looking for, they let me go.
But I wonder what would have happened if I had argued with them.
This kind of thing should not happen to a lot of black men who are suspected of crimes simply because they fit the profile of someone society believes is a criminal.
The fact that it happened to a famous, distinguished scholar dressed in a polo shirt and slacks – and carrying a cane, no less – demonstrates that no matter what black men do, how educated they are, how old they are, or how they are dressed, they are considered a part of the criminal element.
When I posted the Gates story on my Facebook page and asked my friends – rhetorically – what would have happened to a black man in the same situation who did not have Gates’ credentials, one of my friends responded, “You would be posting an obituary.’’
Although my friend probably meant it is a joke, I had to pause and wonder if it might be true.
Even though we have a black president in Barack Obama, a black superstar icon in the late Michael Jackson, a black golfing legend in Tiger Woods, and many other black–male role models, we have yet to overcome the persistent stereotype of the black bogeyman.
Bradley C. Bennett is the executive editor of the South Florida Times.