by Unknown | 7/22/2009 12:42:00 AM
Chances are you've never been arrested. That's for two reasons: because you've never committed a serious crime, and because you don't look like a criminal. That is to say, you're probably well-dressed, clean, tidy -- and you're not a member of a race, whether African-American, Arab-American, or otherwise, that's associated with criminal activity in the American mind.

Unlike you and me, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was born looking like a criminal to most Americans, becaue he was born black. Throughout his life, Gates has done just about everything humanly possible to dispel the notion that he is a criminal. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale, earned MA and PhD degrees from Cambridge, holds an endowed chair at Harvard, and has established himself as the world's preeminent African-American Studies professor. As an author, a teacher, and a public intellectual, Gates occupies a more dominant position in his field than any single historian can claim in ours. He is so well-known, and so respected, in his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that a local burger joint sells a hamburger named after him.

None of that mattered last Thursday, when Gates' own (presumably) white neighbors called the police on him for attempting to break into his own house.

A lot of criticism, both on- and offline, has centered on the policeman who arrested Gates for disorderly conduct on his own doorstep. Gates himself aimed most of his ire at the policeman, at one point calling him "a racist cop." I'm not entirely certain that's true. The police have to show up when someone calls in a break-in, and assuming the cop hadn't heard of Gates (entirely possible), he may honestly have needed the identification before he could be sure Gates did own the house. What's more, no amount of sensitivity training in the world is going to keep a cop's nerves from being on edge when someone starts yelling at him. I don't think the policeman acted entirely appropriately, but neither am I sure he's a foul racist.

What I want to talk about, instead, is the neighbor who called the police on Gates in the first place.

First of all, you don't call the cops on your neighbor if you know it's your neighbor. What kind of person doesn't know they live next door to Henry Louis Gates? The answer: someone who never bothered to find out. There are many reasons someone would choose not to know who their neighbor is, yet I think most people would know if their neighbor was famous. Go back and draw a street map around Marilyn Monroe's house. How many of her neighbors didn't know she lived there? Or pick any other famous person and do the same test.

Henry Louis Gates is a famous man. He's been on television more times than I can count. He's a household name for many people, even non-academics. But his own neighbors didn't know who he was?

Or let's look at it another way. The nosy neighbor can't claim that he or she never looked at the house or its occupants. since they were certainly watching while Gates and his driver jimmied the door. So even if they didn't know who Gates was, they had to know what he looked like. Couldn't they tell that the guy who owned the house and the guy who was jimmying the door were the same guy? Do you think they would have had that same problem with a white neighbor? Or is it just that Gates looked like any other black man, a criminal first, a resident after?

I live in an apartment complex, and I've never met most of my neighbors. But I sure as heck know what they look like. I couldn't imagine calling the cops on them for trying to get into their own front doors. Can you? What kind of person would do such a thing? Or is it simply a gut reaction to seeing a black man in one's neighborhood?

The upshot of all this is that Henry Louis Gates found himself inside his own house having to prove to the police that he was Henry Louis Gates, because if he wasn't he was obviously a criminal. You know, because he looked like one. The arrest a week ago proves that Gates' lifelong quest to define himself as one of America's leading scholars was absolutely necessary for his safety. The most shocking fact of the whole situation is this: the only reason anyone cares that Gates was harrassed by the police and arrested in his own home is that he's Henry Louis Gates. People expect African-Americans to be treated with indignity even on their own property, because they look like criminals; the only reason the cop erred is that he couldn't tell Henry Louis Gates apart from those other criminal blacks. "This is what happens to a black man in America," Gates said during the altercation. He's absolutely right.

Two and a half years ago, it happened to my friend, Weeping for Brunnhilde, a graduate student in medieval history who once wrote for this very blog. On January 12, 2007, Weeping was stopped by a policeman who asked him why he was smoking a cigarette on his own porch. As with Gates, a neighbor had reported Weeping to the police for having the audacity to occupy his own home while black.

Here's what Weeping wrote at the time:

Someone called in that there was a "young black male" on my stoop who didn't live there, and did I have ID.

The next maybe seven minutes (the entire duration of the encounter) is more or less a blur.

Although black, the officer seemed not to understand my rage and indignation at being rendered a suspect on my own stoop. I did make an effort to direct the rage away from him, lest he feel threatened, but I couldn't just stand there calmly.

At one point a raged out, from a place of despair, about how this has been happening to me my whole life and I'm sick of it. ...

I've had such encounters with the police I don't know, five, six, seven times?

Every couple of years something like this happens.

When the cop gestured at an apology towards the end, just doing my job blahblahblah I shot back, "I know, I fit the description, believe me, I know, this is NOT the first time this has happened to me." ...

Harrass me, fine, but don't insult me.

Don't ask me to pretend that I'm not being victimized.

The first time, fine.

The second time, fine.

The third time, fine.

But eventually a pattern emerges, you know? Even if each and every time I've been stopped is "procedurally legitimate," I feel no less victimized for it.

Especially if each and every time is "procedurally legitimate."

"Young black male."

I'm thirty-four.

I have a four-year old child and another on the way.

I'm young, but I'm not that young. Technically speaking, I'm middle aged.

I'm writing a dissertation about something that few people in the world could even begin to understand.

I could get ten Ph.D.s and win a Noble Peace Prize and at the End of the Day, I'm a "Young black male."

See my point?

Indeed. And I wish to say one more thing about the neighbors who called the police on Gates and Weeping.

The person who called the cops on the most accomplished African-American Studies scholar in the world lived in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, so statistically speaking he probably voted for Obama. Ditto the neighbor who called the cops on Weeping, since he lives in a college town. And so they probably believe they have moved beyond racism. Us racist? they say with incredulity. We voted for a black man to occupy the highest office in the land!

Wrong. The election of Obama accomplished only one thing when it comes to race. Before November 4, 2008, there was only one kind of black person: those who looked like criminals. Now there are two: those who look like criminals, and those who are Barack Obama. No one would ever, ever mistake Obama for a criminal -- but our race-blindness ends at the Oval Office door. Any other black man or woman, anywhere else, in our heart of hearts we know they look like a criminal. Post-racial society my ass -- the only person who benefits from post-racialism is Obama himself. If Henry Louis Gates can be arrested in his own home, any black man can.

As an American patriot, that makes me mad as hell.




Blogger Unknown on 7/22/2009 2:26 AM:

I agree with your comment, minus the word "successful" and the two ad words at the end.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 7/22/2009 7:00 AM:

Jeremy, I'm surprised you haven't read the evidence more carefully, because it adds some interesting elements to your argument. The person who called the cops works (for the moment, anyway) for Harvard Magazine, a publication that regularly produces reports on Gates' work, sometimes in detail. And it's a she, not a he.

Race is clearly a factor here, especially in understanding Gates' response. So is discretionary police authority which is really quite extraordinary.


Blogger AndrewMc on 7/22/2009 8:38 AM:

Ah, Jeremy, you beat me to the punch. Great piece.

Just a note to people--please don't use the comments section as a place to advertise. Thanks.


Blogger Geschichte Grad on 7/22/2009 1:32 PM:

@Jeremy: nice piece, and you're right to direct our attention to the question of the neighbor. It'd be nice to get some more information on her, particularly how long she's lived in the area--if she'd only been there a couple of weeks, maybe she hadn't even seen Gates before. Which leads us to the central question of your piece: "is it simply a gut reaction to seeing a black man in one's neighborhood?" Good question, and I don't have an answer--but the question has to be asked and considered and talked about, because, as you so eloquently conclude: "post-racial society my ass." The silver lining of the Gates situation is that it's getting people to talk about racism and remember that it's a real thing of the present, not a relic of the pre-Obama past.


Blogger Unknown on 7/22/2009 10:32 PM:

Ahist, I don't have time to read as widely as I once did, which is one reason I don't post as often as I once did. Perhaps I should stop posting altogether since I don't have time to source my writing like I used to. Still, I think there's some value in getting a snap judgment on an event, so I persevere.

A forty-year-old white woman. Just about exactly the stereotype I had in mind, actually. What a sad thing.

Andrew and GG, thanks for your comments. GG, I don't actually think the real issue is being talked about, though. Gates and the media are focusing on the confrontation with the police officer, but the police officer isn't the villain here -- it's the neighbor. I really think people make a mistake when they see the police as the main cause of racial animosity; it's those of us in our homes who are most hurtful to our own neighbors. Blaming the policeman is like saying the whole problem in Star Wars is with the storm troopers, and if they'd just shape up everything would be fine. Or blaming the Hessians for the Revolution. The storm troopers and the Hessians and the cops are doing what they're told to do, albeit maybe in too zealous a fashion. It's the people telling them to do it that we should be concerned with.