The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrest: When Race Matters

The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrest: When Race Matters

One of the most telling, and overlooked, aspects of the brouhaha over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the particular cast of Gates’ defenders. There was Deval Patrick, the fresh-faced black governor of Massachusetts, who called the arrest “every black man’s nightmare.” There was Vernon Jordan, noting that the event “tells us that the election of Barack Obama did not automatically erase racism.” There was former Congressman Harold Ford, moderate to a fault, passionately insisting that once Sergeant James Crowley realized Gates had not broken into his own home, the officer should have said, “I’m sorry you’re upset, sir. We’re going to leave.” And then, of course, there was the President of the United States, asserting that the Cambridge, Mass., police acted “stupidly.”

There were also the old standbys — Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But by and large, this was not the sort of group you’d expect to see leading a Jena Six rally. Gates himself is more a Cosby conservative than a rabble-rouser; he once wrote, “Are white racists forcing black teenagers to drop out of school or to have babies” And though he studies race for a living, he’s not particularly interested in being divisive or controversial. In short, he’s one of the last people you’d expect to be led off his front porch in bracelets after reportedly yelling, “This is what happens to black men in America.”

There has been a temptation to use the Gates arrest as a metaphor for the plight of all black people. And yet much of what we think of as “black issues” doesn’t really affect most black people. We too easily conflate the words disproportionate and majority. While a disproportionate number of black males are in prison, the majority of us have no experience with hard time. Black people are overrepresented in the ranks of impoverished Americans — but most of us are not poor. Affirmative action may ignite all sorts of racial tensions — but a lot of black people will never apply to a college where such a program exists. What we often term “black issues” are really “American issues” that affect an uncomfortably large number of black people. For activists looking to rally around race, this has presented a problem over the past few decades: there simply is no single issue that unites blacks with the visceral power of segregation and its accompanying “Whites Only” sign.

Mistreatment by the police, however, remains a shared experience for many African Americans. And it’s members of the black upper class — people like Gates and Obama and Ford, black America’s most credentialed social stratum — who are most sensitive to overzealous policing and racial profiling. When it comes to encounters with law enforcement, they are uniquely aware of how quickly their accolades can be rendered irrelevant.

It would never occur to me, or most black people I know, to offer a police officer a lecture on race or to say, as Gates is alleged to have said, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” For the most part, we’re trained by our mothers to hand over ID, answer all questions politely and keep our hands where they can be seen. But for blacks who’ve made it to the upper echelons of American society, those old lessons chafe, and you tire of wearing the mask of deference. Moreover, members of the black upper class tend to inhabit places where they stick out. They work with colleagues who, if only for statistical reasons, don’t have to worry about being confused with a suspect. They live in neighborhoods where they might be the only people of color on the block. This sense of insecurity, of not quite being at home, coupled with the unwillingness of an agent of the state to explain why he’s on your property, might lead even the mellowest among us to see shadowy intentions in what probably was just sloppy police work. And it might lead an otherwise even-tempered President to call the police out in exactly those terms.

Obama, in all likelihood, has had similar experiences with the police, exchanges in which he was left with the impression that his Ivy League pedigree could take him only so far. And so it’s unfortunate that he felt unable to continue to express what he truly felt. He was forced to revise and turn what was an objectively true statement — that it’s stupid to arrest a man in his own house for being rude — into a vague “teachable moment” about nothing particular. Then he invited Gates and Crowley to the White House for beers.

This is deflating. If the rest of the country is too immature for some straight talk about the relationship between blacks and the police, delivered by our most accomplished and temperate diplomats, then the prospects for a broader dialogue about race are not good. I doubt that small talk over Heinekens will make things any better.
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