When I read about Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. getting arrested at his home in Cambridge, MA, I cringed. As the story unfolded, it became clear to me how easily this can happen. Simply misunderstandings, a cop doing his job, and racial profiling all worked together produced yet another incident that we all could, but probably won’t learn from.
I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what the initial exchanges were like between the police and Professor Gates. I do know, or at least I believe, that this would have never had happened if Gates was white.
What concerns me more so is something that’s being overlooked by the media and, as far as I can tell, Gates himself. The copes shouldn’t have been called in the first place.
Professor Gates comes home from a vacation via a cab and finds that his front door is jammed. The cabbie, who also happens to be black, helps him open the door. For this, the police are called.
Let’s not underestimate that.
This means that quite often, regardless of the circumstances, blacks are first thought to be “up to no good”. The presence of a cab or
Now, I have no idea what happened with the interchange between Gates and the cop. At first glance, the cop was obviously doing his job. He was responding to a possible break in. And perhaps all the cop did was ask for some sort of identification. Perhaps Gates should have obliged.
But perhaps the cop should have given Gates the benefit of the doubt. It’s my guess that if Gates were a 58 year old white man (or woman), he would have. But Gates, standing there in what appears to be a Izod style shirt, isn’t white.
When I see stories such as this, I see different standards. It takes me back to the incident involving Dee Brown.
Dee Brown was the first round draft pick of the Boston Celtics back in 1990. He was a black man who had settled into the Boston suburb. Apparently, a “normal sized” black man had robbed a local bank. When the cops saw the giant Brown, they stopped him and ordered him down on the ground, flat on his stomach. Put a gun to his head. The fact that he didn’t fit the description of the suspect outside of race meant nothing. He was black. Therefore, he was guilty. Nice way to be treated by your adopted city.
I grew up in New England. White people, nice white people, living in white suburbs aren’t used to seeing black people in their neighborhoods. So they freak. They may admire Martin Luther King Jr. Hell, they may have even voted for Obama. But see a black guy down the street and it’s OH NO.
I thought that was ending. I guess not.
So, to me, the real problem is not just with the cops. It’s not with whatever reaction Gates had to the cop. It’s with the fact that a black guy can’t get his front door unjammed without having the cops called.
UPDATE: Thanks to KSmith who pointed out to me that Dee Brown was 6’1″ and not 6’10”!