The most contentious moment of President Obama’s press conference on health care last week last week had nothing to do with its nominal subject. It came when Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet asked Obama for his opinion on the arrest the week before of Harvard African American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his Cambridge, Mass., home. What did Gates’s arrest say about “race relations in America?” Sweet wanted to know.
Obama took the bait. Although he acknowledged that he did not know “all the facts” about “what role race played,” he insisted that it was “fair to say” that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates in his own home. He further said that the arrest played into what he called “long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” The statement quickly became an object lesson on the dangers of opining without the full command of the facts. As it soon emerged, the president’s criticism of the Cambridge police was unwarranted, while his implication of racism was aimed at the wrong target.
The incident in question began at 12:44 pm on July 16. James Crowley, a Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant, responded to a phone call from a local woman named Lucia Whelan, who reported that two males -- she did not specify their race -- seemed to be trying to break into her neighbor’s house. Whelan did not realize that one of the men was Professor Gates, who leases that residence from Harvard. Nor did she realize that the other man—the one attempting to force the door open—was Gates’s driver. And, of course, she had no idea that the front door of Gates’ residence was jammed, which required them to force it open. Fearful that she was witnessing a burglary in progress—indeed, there has been a history of midday break-ins in that neighborhood—Whelan made her call to the police, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that would soon become the focus of national attention.
Shortly after Gates had entered his home via the back door, Sgt. Crowley arrived at the scene, alone. Through the glass-paneled front door of the house, Crowley saw Gates and asked him to come out to the porch—a request that prompted the professor to retort defiantly, “No, I will not.” When Crowley explained that he had come to investigate a reported break-in, Gates opened the door and shouted angrily: “Why? Because I'm a black man in America?” When the sergeant asked whether anyone else was in the house with Gates, the professor grew increasingly agitated and accused Crowley of racism. And when the sergeant again asked Gates to come out to the porch, he reportedly told him, “Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside.” (Gates denies making the statements.) Gates was then handcuffed and arrested on a disorderly conduct charge, which was shortly dropped.
In the wake of Gates’s arrest, some critics have suggested that Sgt. Crowley may have been trying to lure Gates onto the porch so as to create a pretext for arresting the professor on charges of disorderly conduct in a public, rather than a private, space. But this accusation has been countered by Crowley, who explains that he “just didn’t know” whether Gates “could’ve been the homeowner who was unaware that there were people in his house unauthorized.” In other words, Crowley, who initially was the only officer at the scene, was seeking to protect Gates’s safety as well as his own.
That’s not how Professor Gates saw it, however. At one point during the incident, an enraged Gates telephoned the Cambridge Police Department, complained that he was being hassled inside his home by a racist officer, and demanded to speak to the chief of police. He then glared at Sgt. Crowley and warned him, “You have no idea who you’re messing with.” This was, to be sure, an accurate statement, given that Gates had initially refused Crowley’s request that he show some form of identification; instead, he demanded to see the sergeant’s ID, which Crowley promptly produced for him. Eventually, Gates did present Crowley with his Harvard identification.
All attempts by police to diffuse the situation proved futile. In addition to Sgt. Crowley, two additional officers arrived at the scene, one black and one Hispanic. As they tried to calm Gates down and Crowley attempted to leave the premises, the professor followed the sergeant onto the porch and shouted repeatedly that Crowley was a racist—all in plain view of Lucia Whelan and at least seven additional onlookers. Crowley twice warned Gates that he would be arrested if he did not stop shouting. Ignoring both warnings, the professor was handcuffed and taken into custody. Before long, his arrest was cast as a symbol of racism and police bigotry – not least, in an indirect way, by the President of the United States.
But there is another, more plausible, side to the story. Lost in the outcry over Gates’s arrest is a critical detail. When Sgt. Crowley asked Gates if he wanted another officer to take his house key and to secure the front door, Gates told him the door was defective due to damage it had sustained in a previous break-in attempt by a would-be burglar. As Gates himself had good reason to suspect, the police had arrived to stop a possible crime in progress.
Gates has long tried to popularize his views about white racism at Harvard. After joining the Harvard faculty in 1991, for example, one of Gates’ first acts was to hire filmmaker Spike Lee as a guest lecturer at the university. Lee has claimed that white “racism is woven into the very fabric of America,” and by his own admission is “convinced [that] AIDS is a government-engineered disease, and that blacks are incapable of being racists because they lack social, political, and economic power.”
Those who insist on taking Gates’s allegations of police racism at face value—from President Obama to Al Sharpton, who called the incident “the highest example of racial profiling I have seen”—should also consider that the professor has long been something of a provocateur on racial issues. He has claimed that he “sees” racism everywhere, and laments that “because of white racism,” he must continually endure the indignity of knowing that “[w]hen I walk into a room, people still see my blackness more than my Gates-ness or my literary-ness.”
Central to that “Gates-ness” is the professor’s belief that racism is omnipresent in American society. He insists that “racism has become fashionable” in contemporary America, and sees evidence of it in everything from the criminal justice system to television programs and college curricula, which include a canon of Western literature that “represents the return of an order in which my people were subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented.” According to Gates, moreover, white people erect innumerable barriers that virtually guarantee black failure.
In 1993 Gates lured Professor Cornel West away from Princeton University, to join him on the Harvard faculty. A Marxist who has branded the U.S. a “racist patriarchal” nation where “white supremacy” continues to define everyday life, West contends that “a profound hatred of African people … sits at the center of American civilization.”
The most egregious instance of Gates’s racial agenda is his attempt to slander a white police officer doing his job simply for the color of his skin. Thus, the most cogent summary of “Gatesgate” comes from Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association. Reflecting on President Obama’s attempt to link Gates’s arrest to the history of racism, O’Connor suggested that the president had it backward: “The facts of the case suggested that the president used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party.”