Like many Americans, I have followed closely the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley for disorderly conduct. This is, as Dr. Gates said during a CNN interview on July 22, "an educational opportunity for America."
Two significant messages loom large in this educational opportunity. First, based on the wildly different responses to this story-- from writers black and white, conservative and liberal-- can we all agree to set aside the bogus notion that we are a "post-racial" nation? This case is about race. We're talking about it. We disagree.
Separate from the facts in this particular case, racial profiling is alive and well in America. According to the ACLU report The Persistence Of Racial And Ethnic Profiling In The United States, released just a few weeks ago, "Indeed, data and anecdotal information from across the country reveal that racial minorities continue to be unfairly victimized when authorities investigate, stop, frisk, or search them based upon subjective identity-based characteristics rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity. Victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street."
Second, most white people remain largely oblivious to the systemic racism that results in the regular occurrence of such incidents all over our nation. It isn't "in our face," doesn't appear to impact us, and we've been socialized not to see it. Most white people consider ourselves to be not racist. We have good intentions toward people of color. But good intentions are irrelevant when the outcomes are unjust and inequitable.
Several facts appear undisputed. Dr. Gates returned home from an overseas trip in the early afternoon of July 16. His front door was jammed so he entered through the back. His driver then helped Dr. Gates get the front door open with the force of his shoulder. A neighbor, seeing what appeared to be two men breaking into the house, called the police. The driver carried Dr. Gates's luggage inside and left before the police officer arrived. Dr. Gates was inside his home when Sgt. Crowley arrived. Crowley asked Gates to prove who he was and that he lived in the home. Gates did so. Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.
Beyond these facts, the versions of events told by Dr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley differ significantly. According to NPR, Sgt. Crowley is a racial profiling expert and a highly respected officer. Dr. Gates is the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He wrote and produced the PBS documentary African American Lives. He's one of the most esteemed scholars in the United States.
I haven't met Dr. Gates, but I do know his attorney, Dr. Charles Ogletree, who graciously provided a quote for the jacket of my book, Inheriting the Trade. He appears in the film of our journey, Traces of the Trade. Am I biased because of my relationship with Charles Ogletree? Of course I am. We are all biased based on who and what we know.
This is key to our educational opportunity here. Who and what do we know? And what impact does that knowledge have on the conclusions each of us draw about this case and others?
Although I haven't met Dr. Gates, I feel I know him through his writing. In A Gift of Wings, Richard Bach wrote, "The way to know any writer is not to meet him in person, but to read what he writes," and, of authors he admires, "…some of my closest friends are people I'll never meet." As I was preparing to write Inheriting the Trade I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing in memoir form. I read Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. One of the contributors was Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He wrote that the lesson for him in writing his memoir—Colored People—is "if you're going to tell the truth, that determines what kind of memoir you'll do." He made the conscious decision to be more open than many people of color were comfortable with. He "lifted the veil" on family, racial, and ethnic secrets that black people—for their own safety—have historically kept hidden from white people. He wrote, "I think mine is the first generation of black people in America who can afford to be this open." I read this as evidence that we have progressed as a nation.
So I bought Colored People and, at Dr. Gates's invitation, entered a world with which I was largely unfamiliar. His writing influenced the way I wrote my book. I am grateful. By Richard Bach's definition, which I embrace, Dr. Gates is indeed my close friend. Before and during my writing of Inheriting the Trade, I discovered more close friends like Cornel West, Randall Robinson, Walter Mosley, and Patricia Raybon, all of whom helped to greatly expand my knowledge about what it is like to live as a black person in America. To date, I've met only Ms. Raybon in person, yet all these writers are my close friends and their work has influenced my thinking, my writing, and my life.
Naturally, when I learned of Dr. Gates's arrest, I was both surprised and troubled. Many questions have occurred to me. Once Dr. Gates proved his identity, and that he belonged in his own home, what could have justified his being arrested? Sgt. Crowley was there to investigate a burglary. Did he pause to wonder what kind of burglar breaks down the front door of a prominent professor's house in Harvard Square at 12:45 in the afternoon? It was clear that no burglary had taken place, so why didn't Sgt. Crowley just leave? No matter how angry or vocal Sgt. Crowley claims Dr. Gates became, how much of a threat could he be? Dr. Gates is 58 years old, 5' 7" tall, weighs 150 pounds, and is disabled (he walks with a cane). Police officers are trained to deescalate tense situations. With several additional police officers on the scene when Dr. Gates was handcuffed was there really no other reasonable alternative? Why did the police department drop the charges with a statement that the arrest was "regrettable and unfortunate" yet defend the actions of Sgt. Crowley? Doesn't "regret" imply you wish something had not happened? Was this indeed a case of racial profiling as Dr. Gates claims? If Dr. Gates were a white man would the situation have evolved in a similar fashion?
Some pundits, bloggers, and people leaving anonymous comments in response to online articles paint Dr. Gates as just another radical, angry black man playing the race card. From what I've read and seen of his work, from what friends who know him say, and from what others have observed, this simply isn't the case.
To my well-intentioned fellow white people, I invite you to take advantage of this educational opportunity. In order to achieve the laudable goal of becoming a post-racial nation we still have much work to do. That work includes making "close friends" with the authors listed above, and others; learning more about what we don't know. More than at any other time in history, events have conspired to allow us to more freely and readily learn and talk about race in America; to expand the circle of who and what we know.
Let us do so.