Gates Arrest Resonates Through Black America

Henry Louis Gates i i

Henry Louis Gates' mug shot, taken after he was arrested in his own home. Cambridge Police Department/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Cambridge Police Department/AP
Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates' mug shot, taken after he was arrested in his own home.

Cambridge Police Department/AP

Charges against Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, have been dropped, and the city of Cambridge, Mass., has apologized for the "regrettable and unfortunate" arrest. But the fact remains that Gates, a prominent black scholar, being arrested in his own home is a chilling moment in the American experience.

On July 16, Cambridge police responded to a call that two black males with backpacks were breaking in to a two-story home near the Harvard campus. By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside his home. He refused to step outside to speak with the police. Eventually, Gates showed some identification and, according to the police report, began yelling at an officer. Gates was handcuffed and led away.

The arrest, which only recently came to light, is "really a very extraordinary episode," says Randall Kennedy.

Kennedy should know. He's the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School; the author of many books on the African-American experience, including Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word; and he is a colleague of Gates. And he's African-American.

"This is the sort of episode that has come up over and over again," says Kennedy. "It's part of what fuels the feeling of frustration and anger. This is really, truly remarkable. But it would be wrong to say that this is sort of completely out of left field. The facts are so striking here. It is part of a pattern that is well-known. It will resonate with lots of black people, especially black men, who have experienced something similar."

He reaches for a book in his office. In a chapter called "Race Law and Suspicion," there is an excerpt of a 1995 story in The New Yorker. Kennedy begins to read over the phone from the magazine excerpt:

"Blacks — in particular, black men — swap their experiences of police encounters like war stories, and there are few who don't have more than one story to tell."

The story goes on to cite examples of prominent African-American men and their seemingly inexplicable — but perhaps all too explicable — encounters with police officers.

•"Erroll McDonald, one of the few prominent blacks in publishing, tells of renting a Jaguar in New Orleans and being stopped by the police — simply 'to show cause why I shouldn't be deemed a problematic Negro in a possibly stolen car.' "

• "Wynton Marsalis says, '(Expletive), the police slapped me upside the head when I was in high school. I wasn't Wynton Marsalis then. I was just another nigger standing out somewhere on the street whose head could be slapped and did get slapped.'"

•"The crime novelist Walter Mosley recalls, 'When I was a kid in Los Angeles, they used to spot me all the time, beat on me, follow me around, tell me that I was stealing things.' "

•"William Julius Wilson ... was stopped near a small New England town by a policeman who wanted to know what he was doing in those parts."

The book Kennedy quotes from is one of his own: Race, Crime and the Law. The magazine story was written by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

What makes the Gates affair so extraordinary, Kennedy says, is its outrageousness — it's like the unimaginably perfect rock in a whole river of rocks.

Kennedy wonders if the police officer in the Gates episode was angry because he didn't receive the deference from Gates that he believed he, as an officer of the law, deserved. And Kennedy says that Gates was surely upset at being challenged in his own home.

"Is it plausible to believe that under these circumstances it was appropriate for the police to arrest someone? If someone was writing a law school exam, he wouldn't actually go with these facts. They are far-fetched. I mean, who would have thunk it? It's extremely troubling."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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