The Gates Case: Shocking, Yet Not Surprising Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., recently in the news for an arrest many conclude had racist overtones, now plans a documentary on the criminal justice system. Commentator Sophia A. Nelson says the incident raises serious issues, but none that hundreds of thousands of blacks haven't seen before.

The Gates Case: Shocking, Yet Not Surprising

Sophia A. Nelson is a frequent contributor to NPR, Talk of the Nation, and Tell Me More. She is editor in chief of Courtesy of Sophia A. Nelson hide caption

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Courtesy of Sophia A. Nelson

Now that the proverbial dust has settled on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arrest in Cambridge, Mass., earlier this week, the foremost question in my mind is: 'Where do we go from here, America?'

I have watched with awe and sadness, frankly, at the stark disconnect between how blacks and whites view the causal effects of the Gates arrest and many similar incidents that have happened in America to black men, whether they be driving, walking down the street, trying to hail a cab, or now entering their own home.

If I were to judge from recent posts on Facebook, and some of the responses to my opinion articles written for other media outlets, and my blog, white Americans see it like this: The white woman who reported the disturbance was doing her civic duty. And Gates got what he deserved because he was not cooperating with the police who were there to help him and simply responding to a B&E call. They do not see how "race" is at issue.

Blacks, on the other hand, see it like this: This is what happens to black men in America no matter what their status. A black man gets arrested in his own home, after showing his proper ID and Harvard University credentials. He rightfully protests in frustration because he can't believe that he is being placed under arrest. As for the white woman (neighbor) who called the police — she was feeding into the worst stereotypes of black men and called the police because she saw a black man going into the house. Plain and simple. Blacks see it as all "racial" and are quite stunned that it could happen to someone like Gates.

What a huge disconnect. So now what?

Ironically, tonight CNN Premieres its Black in America 2 series hosted by Soledad O'Brien. It is a follow-up to the first installment of Black in America, which premiered in the summer of 2008. It will air after the nation's first African-American president hosts a nationally televised news conference on health care.

According to Gates in his first post-arrest interview with The Washington Post, he is going to use this incident to further discuss race in America and the hidden racism that often goes undissected and undiscussed in America.

"I studied the history of racism. I know every incident in the history of racism from slavery to Jim Crow segregation," Gates told the newspaper. "I haven't even come close to being arrested [before now]. I would have said it was impossible."

Despite the fact that the charges against him were dropped Tuesday, Gates said he plans to use the attention and turn his intellectual heft and stature to the issue of racial profiling. He now wants to create a documentary on the criminal justice system, informed by the experience of being arrested not as a famous academic, but as an unrecognized black man.

I think that what Gates' is proposing is a good start, but it is sad that America is only willing to look at "racial profiling" now because it has happened to an upper-middle-class black male intellectual. Racial profiling has happened to black men in my family, to me, and to hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans in this nation. My hope is that we will find the courage to discuss race head on — uncensored and with civility in a way that moves our nation closer to its motto, E pluribus unum — "out of many, one."