by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"A policeman's lot is not a happy one."... ...from "The Pirates of Penzance" by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Commentary of the Day - August 7, 2009: Harvard, Malcolm X, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.At first glance it looked like the perfect story for the dog days of summer -- not man bites dog but man arrested for housebreaking into his own home. But the person, who was arrested and handcuffed for "disorderly conduct" was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a distinguished black professor at Harvard and one of America's most authoritative voices on black history and culture, and the Cambridge police officer in question was, you guessed it, lily white.
The sad spectacle of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s mug shot (replayed endlessly on our TV screens) raises any number of questions, not the least of which was asked, nearly fifty years ago, by none other than Malcolm X. When the fiery black nationalist visited Harvard to deliver a series of lectures, he found time to wonder, out loud, what you would call a black man with a Ph.D. Malcolm X. had in mind Archie Epps, Harvard's black dean of students and a man who was every inch the suave "Ivy League" dresser, from his tweed sports coat to his impeccable bow tie. Malcolm's hurtful answer was (what else?) the N-word. If you think that education, and then more education, can help the average black man, then think again. In a shot, everything that educators across the country believed in was swept off the table. Say what you will, Malcolm X had his own style, and a way with the zinger.
At the time I thought that Malcolm's now-famous quip was longer on the glib than on the truth. Suppose he had changed the arithmetic slightly and asked what you call a Jewish person with the Ph.D. Would the answer have been "a kike"? -- and what would have been the reaction of the Harvard crowd? Who knows? Historically, Harvard had more than its fair share of outright bigots, and plenty of folks who were happy to keep the quota on Jewish students at 10%. But I don’t think the crowd would have cheered ol' Malcolm on if he had belittled Jews. Putting down certain uppity blacks was, well, Malcolm, exactly the controversial character they had crowded in to see.
Granted, we have made considerable progress since those old, bad days -- and professor Gates (as well as President Obama who weighed in on the matter during a news conference) are exhibits. But Malcolm X must be chuckling from his grave. Why so? Because the policeman who thought that Gates might be breaking into what turned out to be his own home was a distant cousin to the people who called a black Ph.D. the N-word.
But if the cop was conditioned, despite the fact that he taught courses in how to avoid racial profiling, it is also true that professor Gates found himself confronting the authority that a badge carries and that generations of black men have learned to fear. From what we have learned recently, Gates was apparently having none of it: he started out being huffy, then became belligerent, and finally caromed off the rails. In the process he failed "Being Black in America, 101," which teaches young black men to be cooperative (even overly cooperative) if they are stopped by the police.
Gates, being Gates, was having none of it and gave the police office attitude by the bucketful. But what must have galled him the most is that the police office didn't recognize him as the world-famous Harvard professor that Gates, in fact, is. And that's something you can't assume, or explain, when the police think of you as just another black man breaking into a house.
At this point, let me add my name to the long list of people who have commented on this sad event but who were not there. I kept thinking that a picture-ID should have been enough to defuse what turned out to be a bad situation. Why didn't Professor Gates just say who he was and, more important, that he belonged there because it was his home. The business about "breaking in" (apparently he had forgotten his key) could have been handled better -- on both sides.
Still, I stick with Professor Gates, not because I happen to be a great admirer of his books but because he must have been shocked to his bones when the racism he wrote and lectured about literally hit home. No doubt he thought he should have been treated with more deference (on this I agree), but he wasn't. Indeed, it was quite the opposite as he was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the police station for the mandatory fingerprinting and mug shots. That the news media display the photos every time the story hits the airwaves is humiliating, and raises questions about how biased, or unbiased, the media in fact is.
None of this is the stuff that makes for a good day if you happen to be professor Gates but the issue is much broader, much deeper, for it gives a face -- and a widely known one at that -- to what travels as "racial profiling." Admittedly, we are swimming through murky waters here. Malcolm X had it easier. He argued that a black man, even a black man with a Ph.D. was nothing but the N-word. Our task -- and it will be not an easy one -- is to explain how so much misunderstanding could lead a black man away from his own house in handcuffs.
The President hoped that a beer at the White House would ratchet down the rhetoric on both sides of this recent racial divide, as well as on the talking heads who have chattered non-stop about what happened at Harvard, and why. [Ed. note: The "beer summit" appears to have had its intended effect.]
© 2009, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.
The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with Sanford on this one. Once the officer (in this case a sergeant from the Cambridge Police Department) had ascertained that Professor Gates was attempting to enter his own home, the officer had no legitimate reason to detain Gates. Even though Gates behaved in a rather undignified manner, being angry and shouting at a police officer in one's own house or on one's own porch in and of itself does not constitute "disorderly conduct" under the laws of Massachusetts. Indeed, the "disorderly conduct" charge was quickly dismissed. More importantly, a supervising officer such as the sergeant involved should have worked to defuse the situation rather than allowing it to escalate.