gates mugshot

Another fine day in Post-Racial America. Apparently, not even noted intellectuals are necessarily above suspicion:

Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation’s most prominent African American scholars, was arrested last week at his home near Harvard University after trying to force open the locked front door.

According to a report by the police department in Cambridge, Mass., Gates accused police officers at the scene of being racist and said repeatedly, “This is what happens to black men in America.” The incident was first reported by the Harvard Crimson.

Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies, has been away from his home much of the summer while working on a documentary called “Faces of America,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and friend of Gates who is working as his lawyer. Gates returned from China last week and had trouble opening the front door with his key.

Gates, 58, was arrested Thursday by police looking into a possible break-in for disorderly conduct “after exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior” at his home, according to the police report. Officers said they tried to calm down Gates, who responded, “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” according to the police report.

Ogletree said Gates was ordered to step out of his home. He refused and was followed inside by a police officer. After showing the officer his driver’s license, which includes his address, Ogletree said Gates asked: “Why are you doing this? Is it because I’m a black man and you’re a white officer? I don’t understand why you don’t believe this is my house.” Ogletree said Gates was then arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and racial harassment.


In the interest of not “playing the race card,” I am trying to examine this story from the law enforcement perspective. I’ve stated a thousand times over that I have the utmost respect for the people in uniform (most of them, anyway). For them, a routine traffic stop could spell the last moments of their life.  For them, an accidental shooting or a case of mistaken identity could translate into the end of a career. For them, being “keepers of the peace” is not a guaranteed success when forced to confront instigative people who would like nothing more than to create chaos. Most of the time, their dedication to “protecting and serving” our interests receives little, if any, fanfare. In contract, law enforcement is about as likely as any other profession to be met with callousness and antipathy.  And especially in the case of celebrities and affluent figures, police can deal with arrogant folks who think their status makes them beyond reproach. So in that vein, I would like to think this was simply a case of Dr. Gates unnecessarily blowing up on a police officer and facing the ramifications of his “disorderly conduct.”

But as a black man in America, I know better.

While I suspect Dr. Gates exhibited frustration which fomented his trouble (i.e. the alleged “Do you know who I am?” line), I can’t  say I blame him entirely. One thing our white brothers and sisters never seem to fully grasp is that black Amercians (men, especially) are almost NEVER given the benefit of the doubt in situations like this. We wear the crown of presumed guilt almost as if it was custom-made particularly for us. Certainly this is not a phenomenon unique to black people (our white bretheren are no strangers to police profiling and aggression themselves). But if I had to venture an educated guess based on the decades of research conducted, this treatment is far more likely to take place with people of color. Simply put, unlike the white card which carries with it many benefits (direct or indirect), our black card carries with it an undue burden on which we are consistently required to pay. Every time I leave the house, I have to prove to the world that I’m “one of the good ones” by staying out of trouble, bottling any anger or frustration I have, and keeping my “blackness” in check. As I’ve argued before, when certain black folks in this country screw up, the rain falls on them and the innocent ones alike. In this situation, Dr. Gates’ justifiable anger and frustration fell directly in line with the black male aggression that has made us a dangerous enemy of the state.

Fortunately for Skip, however, he only spent a few hours in jail. His credentials are still in tact. His appointment at Harvard, uncompromised. Most of all, he managed to walk away with his life. Given the history of police and black men, he definitely came out ahead.

***Update: Yahoo News is reporting that the charges have been dropped.***