23 Jul 2009

Racial Stereotypes in Cambridge

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Barack Obama stooped from the office of the presidency to takes sides in last week’s incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prolific author and African American Studies professor at Harvard, wound up arrested for disorderly conduct.

Gates and a friend were observed by a neighbor trying to force open Gates’s own front door on a street in Cambridge near Harvard. Seeing two black men fiddling with a locked door (and apparently failing to recognize her eminent neighbor), that neighbor summoned the police.

Studying matters African American inevitably promotes hypersensitivity with respect to racial relations, and Mr. Gates predictably responded to the arrival of a police officer with indignation, asking if he was under suspicion “for being a black man in America.”

Gates accused the cop of being a racist, and proceeded to whip out a cell phone and attempt to pull strings with the chief of police. You have no idea who you’re messing with, the mighty Harvard faculty member arrogantly informed the policeman.

Despite all this, merely producing his Harvard ID was sufficient to persuade the officer to leave, but Gates was not content. Bent upon retaliation, he insisted that the cop identify himself, responded to a request to move the discussion outside the house with “yo mama,” and persisted in voicing indignant accusations and abuse.

Not completely surprisingly, in the end, Gates succeeded in getting himself arrested for disorderly conduct.

As this posting of less than a week ago shows, I am not myself inclined to defend exaggerated police sensitivity and amour propre in dealing with the public. In a possible life-or-death situation, that Michigan dispatcher should have taken into account the caller’s emotional distress and overlooked a little bad language.

But, in this case, it is only too clear that Skip Gates himself turned a minor and understandable misunderstanding on the part of a neighbor, where the police were in no way at fault, into his own private melodrama of racial martyrdom. He didn’t get arrested for being black. He got arrested for abusing and trying to intimidate a police officer who was just doing his job.

If Gates had spoken politely to that Cambridge cop and treated the incident with a little understanding, it would all have ended with a handshake and a smile. Gates preferred to manufacture a symbolic national incident. And our supposedly post-racial president can be relied upon to intervene in favor of Professor Gates.

The Boston Globe removed the police report it previously posted (for some reason); but, too bad! it was saved here.

Was Gates profiled? Sure, he was profiled… by his neighbor, who mysteriously could not even recognize him. But, face it, male minority members seen forcing open doors in affluent Cambridge neighborhoods really do fall more logically into the burglars-breaking-in conceptual category than the homeowner-lost-his-keys interpretation even to a not particularly racially prejudiced observer. Minorities really do commit more break ins, and minorities genuinely less frequently own expensive town houses. It is not unfair prejudice to operate prudently on the most probable assumptions.

If that neighbor had taken out her .44, and filled Professor Gates with lead on suspicion, I’d say she leapt to a conclusion. Calling to police to look into what was happening was not any sort of irrevocable act, and normal middle class people can encounter police officers in circumstances featuring minor misunderstandings without feeling victimized.

Stereotypes were obviously at play here, but the most active, hostile, and determinative images were those running furiously inside the head of Henry Louis Gates.

7 Feedbacks on "Racial Stereotypes in Cambridge"


There was no “neighbor.” The woman who called the police at 911 was passing by on the street. In actuality she was from several towns away. I’m in Boston where details like this are explored in depth and revealed in the local print, radio and TV news to the nth degree.


And that explains why she did not recognize Skip Gates. Thanks.

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