Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gatesgate

Posted By on Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 8:12 PM

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The above mug shot is a jarring way to consider the arrest of scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at his Cambridge home (owned and provided to him by his employer, Harvard University). Gates returned to his home (from a trip to China) in the middle of the day last Thursday. A woman called the police to report what she described as two men attempting to break into the home. When police arrived, Gates was inside. The officer asked Gates to step outside, and that is where their stories start to differ. In the end, the officer arrested Gates for what he described in his report as loud and "tumultuous behavior.” Gates was later released from jail and charges have been dropped.

 

The event has set off debate about the significance of one of the nation’s top African-American scholars being presumed a common criminal while standing in his own home. Given the immediate political impact and wide coverage of the story, it’s hard to believe we’ll ever sort out exactly what happened. But one obvious problem is that Gates wasn’t arrested for breaking and entering. That issue was sufficiently resolved. So why was he arrested?

 

I happen to have met Gates, roughly 20 years ago when he was hired as a professor at Duke University. I am slim and barely 5’7,” but he was smaller in stature then. He’s 59 years old now. He also walks (then and now) with a cane due to a disability. (It is noted in the Cambridge incident that the officers had to handcuff his hands in front so he could walk with a cane.)

 

 

The Cambridge officers don’t allege that Gates touched them. “Tumultuous behavior” seems to be a term of art.

 

Whether Gates behavior warranted arrest would probably be a matter of opinion, even if everyone weighing in on the issue had witnessed the entire incident. There are written and reviewable procedures, but there will always be differences of perception.

 

But this is not the first time Gates has dealt with the presumption that he could not be the resident of a nice house. Gates wrote a short piece about racial perceptions shortly after arriving at Duke. It started with an anecdote about returning to his new home in Durham. A craftsman, who was black, was working on the brick walk in front. He saw Gates coming up the walk and inquired, “Can I help you?” Gates wittily replied, “You already are.” And Gates wrote about the notion that another black man would presume that he couldn’t possibly be walking up the walk because he lived there.

 

I don’t think Gates could see the Cambridge confrontation as an isolated incident. I doubt these are the only two incidents that have raised the issue.

 

Sadly, it brings to mind another incident involving a Duke professor. The award winning scholar John Hope Franklin recently died. He was eulogized in an essay by Duke historian William Chafe. It mentions a 1995 incident that occurred at a party the night before Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by our government. As the evening was coming to a close, a woman approached Franklin. And she handed him a coat check tag and asked him to retrieve her coat.

 

Many want to write off such incidents as honest mistakes. Honestly, though, I don’t know how many times such mistakes could happen to me before I started to wonder what types of suspicions countless unidentified strangers harbored about me as I went about my daily life. 

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