What Do You Call a Black Man with a Ph.D.?

The Skip Gates arrest shows how little some features of the national racial landscape have changed over time.

Associated Press
Associated Press

Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America.

I say this because my best friend, a well-known, middle-aged, affluent, black man, was arrested on his own front porch after showing his identification to a white police officer who was responding to a burglary call. Though the officer quickly determined that my friend was the rightful resident of the house and knew by then that there was no burglary in progress, he decided to place my friend in handcuffs, put him in the back of a police cruiser and have him fingerprinted and fully “processed,” at our local police station.

This did not happen at night. It happened in the middle of the day. It did not happen to a previously unknown urban black male. It happened to internationally known, 58-year-old Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. I am writing about this event because it is an outrage, because I want others to know that it is an outrage, and because, even now, I have not fully processed the meaning of it.

Here’s what I understand to have happened: The officer in my friend’s case was really motivated by a simmering cauldron of anger that my friend had not immediately complied with his initial command to step out of the house. In hindsight, that was the right thing to do since I think my friend could have been physically injured by this police officer (if not worse) had he, in fact, stepped out of his home before showing his ID. Black Americans recall all too well that Amadou Diallo reached for his identification in a public space when confronted by police and, 42 gun shots later, became the textbook case of deadly race-infected police bias.

Skip is one of the most readily recognized black men in America and the most broadly influential black scholar of this generation. And yes, in the liberal, politically correct cocoon of “the people’s Republic of Cambridge,” a famous, wealthy and important black man was arrested on his front porch. The ultimate charge? “Disorderly conduct.” Whatever that means.