Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Henry Louis Gates and Racism in America



The biggest news this week was the arrest of Henry Louis Gates under suspicious circumstances. Last Thursday, Gates had trouble unlocking a jammed door when a neighbor called the police to report a possible break-in.

That’s where conflicting accounts begin. The police report says that Gates “was arrested after he yelled at the investigating officer repeatedly inside the residence then followed the officer outside, where Gates continued to upbraid him.” Allegedly Gates said that he was being targeted because “I'm a black man in America.” The Cambridge Police Department has dismissed all charges.

This saga raises an interesting three interesting questions. First, was it right for Gates to have been arrested in the first place? On one hand he was acting belligerently. But how would any of us act in that situation? If we were in our own homes minding our own business and had to show Ids to invading police officers, would we be happy? I’m unwilling to say that Gates should have been arrested for his behavior.

Here we should note that Gates had some luck. His celebrity and the prospect of a public outcry against the department could well have played some role in getting the charges dropped. A poor black man in Compton with no Charles Ogletree(Gates' lawyer) might still be in jail today.

Second, would this have happened to a white professor? I have my doubts as to whether the neighbor in question would have found a well-groomed white man on the porch of a nice home to be a break-in threat. But there is no way to know for sure. The police might well have arrested a white man shouting at them, but then again, if Gates had been white, they might not have been called to the scene in the first place.

Third, how common is this experience, if indeed it was racial profiling? That’s hard to tease out because it’s difficult to get people to agree on what instances constitute profiling. So I’m throwing the question to you. Take my poll. Do you think racial profiling still happens frequently?

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