Henry Louis Gates Jr: Every black man's nightmare

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr led to soul searching for post-Obama America followed by beers on the White House lawn. A fairy-tale end to police harassment and institutionalised racism? Not likely, says award-winning African-American author Darryl Pinckney

Tuesday 04 August 2009 00:00 BST

I don't have a black friend in the United States who does not have a favourite racial profiling story from his own experience. My father told me that some years ago the Detroit chapter of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), that venerable civil-rights organisation, approached leaders of Detroit's Arab community of more than 400,000 about working together on the issue of racial profiling and police harassment of minorities, but the Arab community leaders, businessmen, weren't that interested. As a bloc, Detroit's Arabs tended to vote Republican. But after 9/11, they came in for what some reported as increasingly hostile law- enforcement scrutiny. Arab community leaders suddenly realised what the NAACP had been talking about and phoned them back.

Shortly after Christmas in 2001, I took a flight from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Newark, New Jersey. The agent who checked me in, a middle-aged white woman, said I was to go through a special security process and she said it as if I'd been chosen for a prize promotion of some kind. She came from behind the ticket counter and walked me and my bag over to an X-ray machine that had been set up before the luggage conveyor belt. That was it. I went through security like everyone else. Three months after the attack on the World Trade Center and security was still just someone with a wand, though armed National Guardsmen patrolled the never-busy Indianapolis airport. I said nothing to the check-in agent, because I'd been subjected to careful searches at American airports since the 1970s, when guards and their superiors seemed to believe that there was a correlation between having an Afro and being militant enough to hijack a plane.

When I presented my boarding pass at the gate, an airline agent asked me to step out of line. A young white couple, obviously students, were also asked to wait – to make it look good, I said to myself. We were directed to form a line in front of a desk set up beside the gate. No other passengers were called. Already at the desk were two huge black guys decked out in what to me looked like the latest hip-hop style. They were taking off their big belts, their unscuffed work boots, big watches and thick bracelets. They wore black bandannas and crisp new jeans. They had maximum-security prison-yard bodies. They stretched out their enormous arms and turned for the electronic wand. I did the same after them. My security guard was very young and he trembled as he scanned me. I don't know why I was so sure that his hands were shaking because he was embarrassed to be a white person checking black passengers. I got on the plane and the two huge black dudes were in first class. As I went by one laughed that they'd got me, too, but he didn't mind if it made them feel safe. His lungs were such he didn't have to raise his voice for the whole plane to hear him. He struck me as a big black guy who had learnt to enter a room smiling in order to make white people comfortable.

On the way to my seat I passed a black guy and a white guy sitting together. At the baggage claim in Newark airport I asked if they had been stopped by security before boarding and they said no. I went over to the huge dudes and said maybe racial profiling hadn't been behind our having the extra security check after all. The one who'd laughed at getting searched explained that he was an actor who travelled a lot and what he noticed was that they never stopped the gay guys, just guys like us with beards. I didn't tell him that I was a gay guy with a beard.

The incident wasn't dramatic, but it reminded me how automatic racial profiling was to most Americans, if by the phrase we mean perfunctory social judgments. The question is what part should such judgments have in police policy and how are police officers trained to make such judgments. The nervous, young security guard also stayed in my mind, as an exception, because after 9/11, airport personnel, train-station staff, and even office-building doormen could behave as though they had been encouraged to view their duties as part of the front line of the national defence against terrorist attack. They were not to be messed with, they who used to have to put up with rudeness from the public. They had new status as authority figures and, in Bush's America, citizens learnt to accept estrangement from the state. If self-appointed auxiliary police were bad, think how bad the police themselves became. One afternoon during the second Iraq War, when I was sitting on a bench at the corner of West 67th Street and Central Park West in New York City, a cheerful undercover cop got in my face and wanted to know where I lived.


Obama's inauguration was the first time I had gone to Washington DC since I was a child for a reason other than to protest. It was as if overnight, the government had ceased to be suspicious of the governed. Black people don't expect the first black president of the United States to do anything special for them as black people, because he's already done so much for us just by his presence in the Oval Office. Integration has won; there is no place we can't go; the last threshold has been crossed. Certain precincts of marble in DC used to intimidate me ever so faintly, but that inaugural weekend I got over it. I even felt relaxed at a party at the British Embassy.

The overcoming of such psychological barriers makes a difference, especially to black people who grew up in America in the 1960s and 1970s when every choice in life seemed to be a matter of insisting that we belonged in places where white people didn't want us. In Philadelphia recently, a private swimming pool cancelled a summer group's contract when management saw that the group was black. Some white parents reportedly took their children out of the pool and went home. The outcry nationwide against the facility was so great its management offered to reinstate the black club's contract. The black children's families declined, saying that they were happy elsewhere. It was enough for them that the story got out and the facility was criticised. In my childhood, the black families would have sent their children back to the pool that didn't want them in order to make the point and to live the dream, even a tense version of it. Nowadays, however, black people can be socially and politically confident enough to leave these sort of white people sitting in their own historical dust. This is the age of Obama.

Henry Louis Gates Jr, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, came of age in the civil-rights era and his career, no less than President Obama's, has been about being that new thing coming. From his memoir Colored People (1994), we get the impression that the middle-class black world of Piedmont, West Virginia, where he was born in 1950, was not just tiny and tightly knit, but somewhat sealed off from the surrounding white world as well. Some black communities were terribly insular and those black people who knew all-black schools, churches and streets often felt when looking back that as a result of parental effort they'd been protected from white people, not just segregated from them. Pioneer anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston grew up in an all-black town in the South, some distance from whites and therefore free of the racist incidents that typically scarred and socialised black children back then at an early age. I've sometimes wondered if Professor Gates's ease with himself and white America doesn't stem in part from his having grown up in a world not unlike Hurston's.

Gates has a racial humour reminiscent of Hurston's, too. He is her legatee as well as Ralph Ellison's in the belief that the richness of black culture is what helped black people to survive their oppression. Hurston and Ellison vehemently opposed the writer Richard Wright's interpretation of black identity as inescapable pathology. Gates belongs to the black intellectual tradition that rejects the view that blacks were too victimised to be healthy people. Maybe that is why Gates – everybody calls him Skip – comes across as a black man who did not change his accent just because he graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and was awarded his doctorate in English from Cambridge University. He says to white people what he says to black people, and his style doesn't change from room to room. He carries an atmosphere of having always wanted to be a black man at these formerly all-white institutions, not an imitation white man, as they used to say; and not a middle-class black uptight about the way other black people might be behaving around him either. He doesn't care if white people in a restaurant think he or other black people are being loud. To be free is what matters.

From this affable, gregarious, sensitive soul has come some of African-American literature's most interesting scholarship. His publications are many, his range broad. Gates's work as an editor has been as important as his writings. The Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard became the leader in the field, largely because of Gates. He once showed me around the Du Bois Institute at Harvard and I nearly wept; it was beyond what even the activist and writer of The Souls of Black Folk had hoped for in a graduate research facility devoted to black history. Gates is a familiar presence on television. People who don't want the rhymed edginess of Cornel West accept the wittily outspoken Gates. But Gates and West are good friends. Gates defended West when the latter was attacked by then Harvard President Larry Summers for not, in Summers' view, meeting his obligations as a university professor.

We were once stopped at a light on Francis Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a white man of a certain age spotted Skip's car and darted into the street. He leaned into the window Skip lowered and chatted away, unconcerned about the traffic waiting after the light had changed. "The Harvard Corporation," Skip said when we finally went on, meaning someone from that mysterious body with ultimate power at Harvard. I thought of this encounter when the story erupted a few years later about Larry Summers apparently feuding with and insulting every black in the faculty or administration at Harvard. That gentleman from the Harvard Corporation clearly adored Skip and why shouldn't he. But I was surprised that when Cornel West left Harvard for Princeton, Skip, Professor Gates, didn't leave as well. Anthony Appiah gave up Harvard for Princeton around the same time, because he had tired of the commute, the security checks on the shuttle flight, between Boston and New York, where his partner, Henry Finder, is as an editor at The New Yorker. Professor Appiah's departure from Harvard was reported as though it had something to do with racial politics, but it was a personal decision. Yet his leaving meant a profound absence for Gates, they'd worked closely together for so long. Gates said at the time that he was tempted, but there were things he still had to do at Harvard. And he'd brought up his family in Boston.

Black people comprise seven per cent of Boston's population, the lowest percentage of any major US city, and Boston is also one of the most segregated cities, because neighbourhoods have been defined for decades by their ethnicity: the Portuguese in the South End, the Italians in the North End, the Irish on the South Side, the Jews in Brookline, the blacks in Roxbury and Dorchester, and so on. For a city with an historical image connected to the ideals of the Revolutionary War and the liberalism of the Kennedys, Boston has a rather mean white ethnic mentality (or white working-class something else going on) at ground level. Boston, like Harvard, has both a pro-slavery and an anti-slavery tradition. One is more remembered than the other.

In 1966, Massachusetts elected the first black senator since Reconstruction; in 1972, Massachusetts was the only state McGovern won against Nixon; and now Massachusetts has a black governor, Deval Patrick, the fourth black governor of a state since Reconstruction. Patrick, who was born poor in Chicago, is a graduate of Harvard Law School, like Obama, and, again like the President, he had to appeal to white voters in order to win. Yet for all of that, there is that blue-collar thing scarcely detectable in Boston's streets, like a noxious fume. In the 1970s, working-class whites staged bitter protests against "forced busing", as court-mandated plans to desegregate school districts were known. Black students were to be distributed around white schools and white students shipped to black schools. The sad thing was that as furious as white parents were, the white schools were frequently as bad as the black schools. Today, Boston still has a 60 per cent white population, but only 14 per cent of the students in its public school system are white. The white students have been moved to private academies and religious schools.

Oddly enough, it feels like there is more integration at the top of US society these days than there is at the bottom. The small number of blacks at the top is not threatening to whites after all and, whatever their piety about their roots, upper-class blacks in America today share more of a common culture with upper-class whites than previously, largely because of increased access to class-changing opportunities and experiences, such as getting a Yale or Harvard education, even starting out as children in the kind of schools that feed into the Ivy League, now that blacks are much more able as a group to pass on wealth. The struggles involving race intensify as one goes down the economic scale; middle-class whites and lower-middle-class whites are seemingly unnerved when forced to compete for jobs and housing with non-whites. If neighbourhoods are segregated or restricted, then so are their schools and churches, which is why in what areas blacks who can afford them are approved for mortgages to buy or loans to build remains a volatile, if not widely publicised issue in some US cities. In the primaries, the problem for Obama wasn't only that he was losing the white ethnic, Roman Catholic and working-class vote to Clinton, he was losing among whites in those districts where there was already a significant racial mix.


Class resentment could have been as much a factor as race prejudice in Gates's arrest on 16 July, for disorderly conduct, on the front porch of his apartment house near Harvard, by a young white police officer, Sgt James Crowley. The story as first reported was that Professor Gates returned from a trip to China and found himself locked out of his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. He and his regular taxi driver who'd brought him from the airport, a Moroccan man dressed that day in a suit, tried to jimmy the lock. Someone passing by called the police and reported two black men with backpacks who looked like they were trying to break in someone's front door. The door frame was bent, maybe because someone had, indeed, tried to break in at some point before. The driver put his shoulder to the door and it gave way.

My understanding is that Professor Gates was alone in his apartment when the plainclothes officer Crowley arrived to investigate. It's not clear to me who asked to see whose identification first. Gates asked if the officer was acting a certain way because the officer was a white policeman and he was a black man. Gates produced a photo ID, but Sgt Crowley wouldn't give Gates his name or badge number when Gates said he intended to file a complaint. It's also not clear to me why the officer wanted Gates to step outside on to the porch. For some reason, he was not mollified by Gates having produced his ID and an explanation as to why he was there, or he was unwilling to give up his suspicion. Gates maintains that although he was indignant, irate, he did not say, "I'll see your Mama outside," as the officer now claims. In any event, when Gates followed the police officer outside, still asking for his name and badge number and surprised that four police cars had pulled up, Sgt Crowley said, "Thank you for complying with my request," and put him in handcuffs.

Gates spent four hours in jail before he was released. The charges were dropped on 21 July. The police report is maybe tuned to make the scenario support the officer's charge that Gates was uncooperative and disorderly. Gates has said the officer is now giving him dialogue better suited to a situation comedy set in the ghetto. Sgt Crowley maintains that he had no choice but to arrest Professor Gates. As a police matter, this is also a union matter. The police union is behind him. Race pride and tribal honour may be playing a part in the officer's refusal to back down or apologise. I can't imagine Skip Gates saying in any puffed up way that the officer would soon find out who he was dealing with. I can only imagine this wiry, middle-aged black man saying something like that with Muhammad Ali-like mockery, which of course is more provocative. You can't be arrested for pomposity, but evidently you can for suspected skill in playing the Dozens (a black urban insult contest).

It is a Harvard-owned building. If Sgt Crowley heard more than he was prepared to about Gates's connection with Harvard would that have made him more determined to subdue Gates as a black man not showing him proper deference, an obnoxious someone from that citadel of personal privilege and contempt for everyone else? ("I'd kiss you had you not gone to Harvard," Elizabeth Hardwick said to the young Mexican-American writer, Sarah Kerr, when they met. "I'm so sick of Harvard and Yale, aren't you?") Never mind that Gates is Crowley's elder. The macho stand-off could not have been colour-blind, should anyone choose to see the contest inside Gates's apartment as one of two men battling over personal prestige. Maybe some blue-collar white men dislike educated black men in particular. In the old days, whites used to burn down the houses of blacks who had the means to have them painted. Back then, black men who were lynched because they'd been accused of having raped white women often turned out to have been prosperous black men with businesses whites either wanted for themselves or didn't want to have to compete against.

Even if we accept the police officer's report, an angry or verbally abusive Gates was nevertheless unarmed, not dangerous, and in his own house. The thing about racial incidents these days is that the perpetrator usually denies that race supplied a motive for his actions, because everyone knows that racism is socially frowned upon, like smoking. Yet racism is still around; maybe more covert in some situations. It is not uncommon for a black person to be told that he or she is taking something that happened or was said the wrong way. Often the black person has no way of knowing if he or she has been, say, treated impolitely in a store or an office because of race. Maybe a clerk was just having a bad day. Think how hard it is to prove that one has been denied professional advancement because of race (or gender). Many black people have a conversation with themselves daily, about letting this or that go, about not being paranoid over every little thing. But sometimes you do know and are not in the mood to let the injustice go, even in the age of Obama.

I was appalled by an article supposedly sympathetic to Gates that said he had been unwise to get angry with someone in uniform or that a professor with his skills should have calmed the situation down. Are we not frightened members of society if we recommend appeasing the police or showing respect for authority when it is undeserved? And why is the burden on Gates? Hasn't Sgt Crowley also the benefit of his training? He said he had no choice but to make the arrest, but why did he believe he had no choice? He could have apologised at any time and walked away. He, too, could have defused the situation. But the cop must win, so cops and cop supporters seem to think.

Governor Patrick called Gates's arrest every black man's nightmare and this is what Gates was trying to say when he told The Washington Post that he believed the officer was guided by a narrative about race already in his head. No one, including President Obama, faulted the passerby for reporting what looked suspicious. But once Gates had identified himself and established that he was in his own home, his question of why the officer was behaving the way he was goes to the heart of the problem. The officer could not let go of the picture racial profiling had already drawn for him. Or he chose to cling to it, after the picture had proved inapplicable.

By his action, Sgt Crowley has shown that he is not much different from white highway patrolmen who pull over black motorists driving cars that the officers think are too expensive for black men to have unless they are drug dealers or car thieves. In some cases, it's hard to credit that the patrolmen really believe the middle-class black men in the BMWs and the middle-class black youths in the SUVs that they pull over on the New Jersey Turnpike could be felons. Maybe racial theorists would say that whiteness has always depended on the criminalisation of blackness. But it used to be that black dudes were the ones thought to have the racial chip on the shoulder.


President Obama shocked some people when, at the end of a press conference on healthcare on 22 July, he was asked about the Gates incident and he criticised the Cambridge police force for behaving "stupidly". He was warning them about the cost of their pride. He was repudiating racial profiling as a risk-assessment tool. Too much shady business could go on under such cover. The moral compass has shifted. It was a signal to us that he is continuing to move the country away from the mood in which we acquiesced in the abrogation of individual freedoms. His remarks also told us that he was a man who spoke up for his friends and the experience of his generation: racism can lead to bad police work.

However, Obama, the mediator-in-chief, has since qualified his support for Gates, saying that the police officer overreacted as had the professor. He brought the two men together at the White House perhaps because he had to. It didn't change very much. Maybe it kept the importance of dialogue upfront. But for a while there, no less than the President of the United States was identifying with and reading into the record the long history of black men at the hands of the police in America. The point is not that Gates deserved better treatment because he is who he is. No black man should get locked up because his tone has displeased a white officer of the law.

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