NPR logo Racial Profiling Goes High Profile


Racial Profiling Goes High Profile

A bicyclist passes by the home of Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass. Gates was arrested last week while trying to force open the locked front door of his home near Harvard University. Following public outcries of racism and widespread media attention, the city announced Tuesday its plan to dismiss charges against Gates. AP hide caption

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You just came home from an overseas trip. You're tired, probably jet lagged. You get to your front door. It won't open. It looks as if it's been tampered with. Uh oh. Have you been burglarized? Is something missing?

The TV? The stereo? The computer?

Or is the door just stuck?

So you let yourself in the back door, turn off the alarm, and do a quick look around. Your driver brings in the luggage while you call the repair guy to ask him to look at the door. ... And what do you see?

A police officer standing in your door.

And what's this?! He is asking you who you are. He wants to know if you can prove this is your house. He thinks you burglarized your own house.

You are a police officer. You get a 911 call about two black men, and the caller says, "I see them trying to force the door."

You show up. You see a man. He's on the phone. You demand ID. He produces it but then demands yours, too, and you think he's becoming kind of agitated and a bit loud.

So, how do you respond to this? How does this end?

I am guessing your answer depends on a number of variables, and, yes — like it or not — race is probably one of them. Your race, the officer's race, his or her attitude toward you, and, frankly, each of your past experiences are all factors.

Yes, it's another of those stories.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of this country's best known scholars, was arrested at his home last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had just returned from China.

And here's a excerpt from Gates' full statement, made through his attorney and colleague Charles Ogletree, whom we spoke with earlier in the day:

... Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door and requested that it be repaired immediately. As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. ...

How is this going to end?

After speaking with Ogletree, the City of Cambridge announced their plans to have charges dropped against Gates. An excerpt from that statement (the full announcement is posted to an updated conversation we later had with Gates' colleague, fellow law professor Randall Kennedy, who reacted to the news):

... The City of Cambridge, the Cambridge Police Department, and Professor Gates acknowledge that the incident of July 16, 2009 was regrettable and unfortunate. This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department. All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances. ...

That may be so, but the discussion continues ...