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.
Maybe this “situation” had something to do with Harvard University and social class. It is possible that one element of what happened here involved a policeman with working-class roots who faced an opportunity to “level the playing field” with a famous and successful Harvard professor. But even if class mattered, it did so mostly because of how, in this situation, it was bound up with race.
Imagine the scenario. An influential man, in his own home, is ordered to step outside by a policeman. Naturally and without disrespect he asks “Why?” or perhaps “Who are you?” The officer says words to the effect, “I’m responding to a burglary report. Step outside now!”
To which, our confident man, in his own home, says, “No. This is my house. I live here. I work for the university, and the university manages this property.” The response prompts the officer to demand identification. “Fine,” our resident says, and he pulls out two forms of identification from his wallet.
The officer now knows with high certainty that he is dealing with the legitimate resident of the home. Does he ask, “Is everything alright, sir? We had a report of a burglary.” No, he does not. Does he say, “I’m sorry, sir, if I frightened you before. We had a report of a burglary, and all they said was ‘two black men at this address.’ You can understand my concern when I first got to the house?”
No, he didn’t do that either. He also could have disengaged by walking away. But no, he didn’t do that either.
This officer continued to insist that my friend step outside. By now, it is clear to my friend that the officer has, well, “an attitude problem.” So, as I suspect would happen with any influential, successful person, in their own home, who has provided authoritative identification to a policeman would do in this situation: My friend says, “I want your name and badge number.” The cop says nothing sensible in response but continues to wait at the door.
The request for the officer’s name and badge number is pressed again. No response. Social scientists have plenty of hard data showing that African Americans, across the social-class spectrum, are deeply distrustful of the police. The best research suggests that this perception has substantial roots in direct personal encounters with police that individuals felt were discriminatory or motivated by racism. But this perception of bias also rests on a shared collective knowledge of a history of discriminatory treatment of blacks by police and of social policies with built-in forms of racial bias (i.e., stiffer sentences for use of crack versus powder cocaine).
In the age of Obama, however, with all the talk of post-racial comity, you might have thought what happened to Skip Gates was an impossibility. Even the deepest race cynic—picture comedian Dave Chappelle as “Conspiracy Brother” from the movie Undercover Brother—couldn’t predict such an event. But, I will say that when I moved into the same affluent area as Gates, I wondered whether someone might mistakenly report me, a black man, for breaking into my own house in a largely white neighborhood and what I would have to do to prove that the house actually belonged to me if the police showed up at the door.
I remember joking with my wife that maybe I should keep a copy of the mortgage papers and deed in the front foyer, just in case. I do now. And it is no longer a joke.
There is no way to completely erase and undo what has been done. And there is, indeed, a larger lesson here about the problem of racial bias and misuse of discretion by police that still, all too often, works against blacks, especially poor blacks. If Skip Gates can be arrested on his front porch and end up in handcuffs in a police cruiser then, sadly, there, but for the grace of God, goes every other black man in America. That is one sad statement, and it should also be enough to end all this post-racial hogwash.
Maybe events will prove my cynicism and anger unwarranted. Perhaps the officer involved will be fully held to account for his actions. Perhaps Gates will hear the apology he so richly deserves to hear. Perhaps a review of training, policy and practice by police in my fair city and many others will take place and move us closer to a day of bias-free policing. If you’re inclined to believe all that will happen, then I’ve got a shiny, new, post-racial narrative I’d be happy to sell.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
Read Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s reaction to the incident on WashingtonPost.com.
Dayo Olopade interviews Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Charles Ogletree gives Gates' side of the story.
Karen Grigsby Bates on when apologies aren't enough.