Was Harvard Professor's Arrest Racially Motivated? Last week, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested outside his home after neighbors called police about suspicious activity in the area. Accounts of exactly what led to the arrest are still unclear.
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Was Harvard Professor's Arrest Racially Motivated?

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Was Harvard Professor's Arrest Racially Motivated?

Was Harvard Professor's Arrest Racially Motivated?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week, police in Cambridge, Massachusetts arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home near Harvard University. A neighbor had called the police to report what looked like a break-in.

Gates supporters say he was understandably indignant. The police report accused him of belligerent behavior. Today, the city of Cambridge dropped a disorderly conduct charge and the statement said that all sides agree that's a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances, but the conversation is not likely to end there. The incident resonates with many black and Latino men and with police officers. Between the he-said and he-said lie decades of suspicion and grievance.

Today, we want to hear from police officers and from black and Latino men who've experienced these kinds of confrontations. What's your side of the story? Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As part of our series Talking Race, we ask Dawn Turner Trice, who writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune, to weigh in on these situations. And she joins us, as usual, from Chicago Public Radio. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you write in your blog today: Some black men might just say they've - they're just exhausted having to explain themselves or defend themselves in matters of race. Explain to us what you're talking about.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. I heard from a ton of readers regarding the story. And as you know, this has been the talk of the water cooler conversations a lot today.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: I think that it tends to - and I stress tends to - divide along race lines, some of these issues, and one in particular: whether Gates identified himself. There is some question as to - I mean, the police report said that he, initially, he did not identify himself to the police when the police officer asked him to prove that it was his home. And then - but Gates' attorney said that he did. He showed a driver's license, as well as a Harvard ID.

And so, the question from - well, black readers are saying that they understand the frustration of having to, you know, constantly prove who you are, and this was just another indignity. We are very familiar - and this is what they're saying that they're familiar with - how to handle driving while black, if you will. You step out of the car and you throw your hands up, and you acquiesce. You take every directive.

But when you're in the home, it's quite - those rules are not as clear. And that is - there's a bit of - Gates' frustration or what's been reported as his frustration was understandable, and this is what black readers are saying. But white readers are saying, well, what was the police officer supposed to do?

CONAN: Right.

Ms. TRICE: He was called to the home, and he was called to investigate what was believed to be a crime in progress. And so, you know, what -should he have not come, or should he have not asked for identification?

So it's kind of people seeing the incident quite differently. And they -and a lot of white readers do not understand Gates' - you know, what was reported to be his frustration about all of this. What is the big deal? Show the ID and clear up the muck.

CONAN: And, again, exactly what happened in Cambridge last week, I'm not sure is precisely clear today…

Ms. TRICE: Right.

CONAN: …and I'm not sure will ever become precisely clear.

Ms. TRICE: No.

CONAN: Nevertheless, this is a situation that has happened all too often in other places around the country, and all too often erupts in some kind of, well, if not violence, at least accusations of who you're racially profiling. You're hindering a police investigation and things can escalate from there.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And we're - and so, the question of, I mean, was this indeed a racial incident, you know? I mean, there are - there will be people who will weigh in on that.

But I think that what it comes down to is, you know, perception and how there is still this racial divide and how we can look at we, as black people, as white people can look at the same incident and see it completely differently. And that is something that we continue to grapple with in this so-called - and I stress so-called - post-racial society.

And it becomes and - when we think about this, I mean, there are very few incidents that really illuminate it in the way that, you know, the criminal justice system shows us and just dealing with the - this constant, this huge chasm between the police and black Americans in many situations. And it's interesting that it doesn't just happen on the south side of Chicago, or only happen on the south side of Chicago, in the Bronx, or something. I mean, it can happen and it has happened in Cambridge with a Harvard professor.

And we would argue that it shouldn't happen anywhere. I mean, there has to be a little - a better relationship between the police and the people that they're serving and protecting.

CONAN: And again, we want to hear from callers today who've been on either side of this confrontation, from police and African-American or Latino men who've been confronted, what they might think of as unfairly. What happened? How did perceptions affect that? In retrospect, what happened there? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And part - yes, this is something that you think tends to happen with younger black or Latino men. This is a distinguished professor, 58 years old, who walks with the help of a cane…

Ms. TRICE: Yes.

CONAN: …not likely to be perceived necessarily as threatening to a police officer.

Ms. TRICE: Well, and I had a reader who said, you know, that there was a time a few years ago when there were police officers who were looking for a strawberry blonde-haired guy with various other characteristics. And he said that he was - he's a white guy, and he said that he was stopped constantly during this search for this very specific person. And he asks me, well, why wouldn't that be considered racial profiling?

And the bottom line is that, I mean, the police officers were looking for a very specific person. And had it been the case in Cambridge that they were looking for this black, you know, guy who wears glasses, who's somewhat professorial looking, then, you know, then I think that there would have been less of an argument to be made that this wasn't about racial profiling. But it is kind of - it is interesting that, you know, that they - that this happened to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as you say, readers, your readers have been divided on this, I guess, along racial lines, again…

Ms. TRICE: Yes.

CONAN: …thinking about the situation for the police officer, reported a crime in progress. What else is he supposed to do? And in a way, if you look back at the statement that was released by Professor Ogletree, who's Skip Gates' lawyer in this case, and by the police, you can look at both of these things and say, you know, wait a minute. Both these things might be true. He might have provided identification, but at a later time than the police officer would have liked. And yes, indeed, you could see how somebody, confronted by what he sees as an indignity in his own home, after a long flight home from China…

Ms. TRICE: From China, yes.

CONAN: …might be - might have been a little too remonstrative with the police officer. But how this developed into a situation where so many people find so many links to this is, well, this is the situation of our country today. People are saying, what does it matter if there's an African-American man in the White House when, you know, this can happen to a professor in Cambridge?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I updated the blog entry to include some things. And I started to wonder, having read some of the comments, I started to wonder, what would have happened if the person who made the initial call, the neighbor, if the people standing at the door, if she had seen that those people were white? What would have happened if the police officer, when he arrived, if that person - the homeowner had been white?

And in terms of Skip Gates, what would have happened if the officer had been black? You know, so how does - I mean, race really - the race, in history, figures so prominently in this and how we respond, how we see it, that it's - it's really - it's kind of, for me, it's unsettling that we can have, we can come together - I mean, those who voted for Barack Obama and who did not let race be an impediment in that. But we can still come together and look at an incident and kind of see it very differently, and it's distorted through the lens of race.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Mike's on the line from Lawrence, Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. About three years ago, a co-worker - a friend of mine - I'm Choctaw and he's Kiowa - we went to a ranch here in northeastern Kansas, and we were pulled over three times on the way back for refusing to let them search our car because of a headlight.

And I knew my Fourth Amendment rights, and we figured after the second time it was done - third time we got pulled over, we're out in the middle of nowhere with cops, and we had two choices. We either freaked out or we laughed because we couldn't even believe we were being pulled over. And we laughed and just kind of dealt with it calmly and hoped that we would not go on to any more challenge like that on the way home. But it just leaves you in disbelief sometimes.

CONAN: And you thought you were deliberately being targeted.

MIKE: Oh, I had Indian stickers on my car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: And my - I'm part Indian, my passenger was full blood. And, yeah. They were suspecting - we got to a reservation in Northeast Kansas, and we were just sightseeing and they thought we were drug runners. That's why they asked to search our car, and I knew my Fourth Amendment rights, and I knew they were profiling me.

CONAN: Dawn?

Ms. TRICE: Yeah. You know, the phrase is driving while black, but it could just as easily be, driving while Native-American, in some places, driving while Hispanic. It is - and that is some - that's a story that I've heard over and over, whether it's the headlight or if it's something that's - someone has hanging from the mirror, so that officers use various reasons to stop a person that they might not ordinarily stop if the person were white.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Peter in Portland, Oregon. As a middle-aged, young-at-heart white guy with longer than shoulder-length hair, I empathize with Professor Gates' indignation totally. I've been stopped for questioning while walking my dog at 3:00 in the morning for absolutely no good reason. This is not as systemically entrenched as racist responses, but I would agree that police very frequently treat minorities - long hairs included - differently…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …and with bias. So we're talking with Dawn Turner Trice today of the Chicago Tribune, where she writes the "Exploring Race" column. We talk with her from time to time here on TALK OF THE NATION, talking race. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And here's another email, this is from Charles: I'm black and a police officer. Dr. Gates overreacted, used the race card and should apologize to the officer who was only responding to a citizen's call for help.

And again, we characterize the police generally as white, and that's not - that's often no longer the case.

Ms. TRICE: Mm-hmm. That's right. And I think that we have to - and that's why I did ask the question, I mean, how would he - how would Professor Gates have - how would he have handled this if the officer had been black?

I think that everybody - there are so many things that kind of went wrong in this. I mean, we could say that, you know, he had just come back from China and he was probably, you know, physically fatigued. And there's also the fatigue - and we can't - I don't think we can diminish the - just the emotional and mental fatigue of constantly being - that comes from constantly being reminded, in sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, of being a minority person in this country.

And I've had readers sometimes take me to task on that, saying, well, I mean, you're - I mean, it sounds a little like victimhood. But it's not about that. But it's the reality of those - you have, sometimes, just an aggregation of all those little incidents. And then - and, you know, and sometimes, they just make explode.

CONAN: Let's go to Alana(ph), Alana with us from St. Louis.

ALANA (Caller): Hi. I'm calling because I had a incident to occur with my son this past weekend. And he was just walking to the store. He didn't drive his car. He was walking to the store. And on the way there, the police stopped him and asked him for his identification. And he had given it to them, and then - he didn't know it, because he had paid in the time he had to take care of the ticket. He didn't know that if there was a warrant.

They arrested him. And after they arrested him, and (unintelligible), they took his money. And then, because he asked about it, you know, told him to shut up or they were going to put him back in jail.

CONAN: So, effectively, you're saying, he was robbed by the police.

ALANA: He was robbed by the police. But, I mean, there is just this whole thing that African-American males have to go through. And it's, like - I was scared for him to say anything. Once I had gotten him, posted the bail and gotten him, I was scared. (unintelligible) I'm not even saying anything. He's like, well, they just can't take my money. And I was like, yeah, but they're ready to rock you back up.

And the police that had gotten upset with him just because he questioned it. And so, my question is, is because this happened on a regular basis, what do we do with African-American people? Who do we call to? Who do we tell about the injustice? How do we get this resolved?

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure what the situation there is in St. Louis. Any advice, Dawn Turner Trice?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I think, in - I don't know. This is a very - it's a very sad situation, and it's - you know, without knowing all of the details, I think that what it does is it speaks to the distrust that is quite prevalent in a lot of minority communities, the distrust between the police and the residents. And it is often a fractured relationship, especially when you have people who can recite examples of, you know, improper behavior by police. And we've had - in Chicago, we've had numerous stories similar to what the caller just spoke about. And just - and so, it just does not - when you have all of this, this accumulation of all of these incidents and whether they directly affect you or not, it really does begin to affect, I think, the psyche.

CONAN: Alana, thank you very much.

ALANA: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Now, let's see if we can go next to Hue(ph), Hue with us from Oakland.

HUE (Caller): Yes. The example you're writing about is small compared to some of the examples recently we've had in Oakland, where, on the one hand, Oscar Grant got, obviously, shot and killed by a BART police officer. And then, on the other hand, four Oakland police officers were shot and killed. In each incident, there's a - two sides of the coin, some people saying that the person never should have been pulled over or stopped in the first place, the other side saying, obviously, that they overreacted.

And to me, what this speaks about is there needs to be, A, more communication between both sides and what their - the issues behind these are - the underlying issues are for the police officers, they view that they're just trying to do their jobs, and sometimes they might overreact. On the other hand, the people that they're stopping have their own underlying issues, namely, economic and injustice issues which also have to be addressed. So, the underlying issues have to be addressed, and the communication needs to be a lot greater.

CONAN: I think we can all agree with that, Hue, and wonder when that might happen because that's been evident for some time. But thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

Ms. TRICE: And I think that it's important to know that there are - I mean, there are some bad apples on the police force, but there are also good police officers, and they walk into situations every day that are extremely dangerous. And so it becomes a challenge. I mean, how do you balance the - I mean, this - what Gates was involved in was not a life-or-death situation. But, I mean - but, you know, you still - everybody takes their history and all of this baggage with them to these situations.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice, as always, thanks very much.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes to the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune, and joined us today from Chicago Public Radio.

Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us with a new trivia question. Maybe he'll stump us again. Tune in for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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