Barbarians at the Gates: What does scholar’s arrest really say about race in America?

By Byron Tau | Related entries in Barack, Change, Civil Liberties, D.C., News, Obama, Race

About the author: Byron C. Tau is a journalism graduate student at Georgetown and a recent graduate of McGill University in Montreal. You can find him all over the Internet, from his politics and commentary website Heartless and Brainless to his Twitter account to his personal blog. His favorite topics tend to be civil liberties issues, freedom of speech issues, anti-nanny state stuff and hating on the Canadian political system. He also likes to cover the “game” of Washington politics and the usual inside politics process stuff.

The arrest of noted Harvard African-American scholar and The Root co-founder Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spread like wildfire across the blogosphere this week. Today, there are a few additional updates. First, the Smoking Gun obtained and posted the actual arrest report. Second, Slate enlisted the help of the ACLU in explaining away a lot of the charges made against Gates by the Cambridge police. And finally, last night’s prime time press conference on health care saw President Obama delicately wading into the issue in his last press answer, stating:

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.

The story is fraught with political and policy significance on so many levels that it’s no surprise that it spread so quickly. Washington is debating the confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court associate justice — the same woman who has sparked a firestorm of conservative commentary concerning her judicial decision about affirmative action in New Haven and her comments regarding the jurisprudence of a “wise Latina” being better than a white male. Some commentators pointed out that the arrest happened just as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece saying that race-based affirmative action had to be abolished. Finally, the arrest happened the same week that CNN had been scheduled to run a special with Soledad O’Brien entitled Black in American 2. The political irony is almost palpable and seems to beg the question: does being black in America mean being arrested for disorderly conduct on your own front porch after getting a little miffed?

First, it’s pretty clear that the police acted inappropriately — at least if Gates’ version of the story is to be believed in its entirety. As Slate pointed out, it is a requirement that Massachusetts police show ID when asked. Second, a disorderly conduct charge in the state usually refers to conduct that will spark a riot. Blowing your cool on your front porch hardly seems to endanger polite civil society. Finally, as the Slate Explainer pointed out, getting upset and shouting at a police officer about being racially profiled is about as explicitly political as you can be — and thus count as protected speech under the first amendment.

But if it’s true that the Cambridge police acted foolishly and probably illegally, it could be equally true that this arrest says very little about the overall state of race relations in America or the many public policy debates surrounding it. As President Obama pointed out, racial profiling is a problem across America. I see it everyday in my Washington D.C. neighborhood. But at the same time, does the arrest of one prominent scholar in Massachusetts really negate Douthat’s point that perhaps affirmative action has run its course? Is one anecdotal case in one Massachusetts city really emblematic of the struggles of a whole race of people?

Race in America is a touchy subject, still. The latest Internet meme from today refers to a prominent AMA physician accused of forwarding racist photoshopped caricatures of President Obama as a witch doctor. It’s currently the lead story on Talking Points Memo. What these incidents do reveal is an American public hungry for a frank conversation on race and a media class only perfectly willing to oblige with stale, simplistic race-baiting. What they don’t reveal is a racist, bigoted society rotten to the core.

The rise of Americans like Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and others is more than just the tokenism that Martin Luther King Jr. warned Americans to avoid when talking about race. Women comprise a solid majority of college graduates at convocations every spring, and their salaries in major urban areas amongst unmarried, childless women are higher than men in almost all the major urban areas. The President of the United States is an African-American, who garner 66.8 million votes — 8.5 million more than his white, American male rival. Prior to his election, the previous two top foreign policy makers in the Bush Administration were both prominent and well-credential black Americans. There is a large and well-heeled black middle class in this country — one often marginalized in popular culture depictions of urban life media stereotypes and hip-hip rags-to-riches glory stories.

It does us no favors as a society to turn an unfortunate incident at Cambridge into a microcosm for all of American society. There is ample evidence for real and sustained racial progress, and America has mostly moved beyond some of the baser prejudices that haunted her for centuries. There are some barriers to achievement still, just as there are some opportunities for those of any skin color, gender or creed. Just as the election of one African-American hasn’t made racism disappear, the arrest of another hasn’t brought it back in vogue.


This entry was posted on Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 and is filed under Barack, Change, Civil Liberties, D.C., News, Obama, Race. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Barbarians at the Gates: What does scholar’s arrest really say about race in America?”

  1. Tully Says:

    First, it’s pretty clear that the police acted inappropriately — at least if Gates’ version of the story is to be believed in its entirety.

    I would suggest that assuming one can believe Gates’ version to be 100% accurate and truthful is a large leap of faith.

  2. Jacob Says:

    “First, it’s pretty clear that the police acted inappropriately — at least if Gates’ version of the story is to be believed in its entirety.

    I would suggest that assuming one can believe Gates’ version to be 100% accurate and truthful is a large leap of faith.”

    And it’s just as large of a leap of faith to believe the police report 100%.

  3. ExiledIndependent Says:

    Listen, where I live young white males face this kind of police action all the time. Back in the day, I was pulled over regularly by the police for some bogus reason or another. So why the ruckus when it happens to an older black guy? The rush to judgement based on a minuscule understanding of the entire story is very telling of peoples’ racial biases, though.

  4. kranky kritter Says:

    The story is fraught with political and policy significance on so many levels that it’s no surprise that it spread so quickly.

    Actually, the story isn’t fraught with much other than a misunderstanding, a couple reactions (Gates and the cops) and the usual subsequent two versions of the story. The ensuing controversy says way more about the eagerness of various opportunists (journalists, spinmeisters, political activists) to pump up the windbag.

    First, I’d like to fill you unfamiliar folks in on what the City of Cambridge, Ma is like. Many folks in rest of our state unfondly refers to it as “the people’s republic of Cambridge” because it’s progressive-umbrage-taking central. You can bet every officer on the Cambridge force has taken the full boat of required sensitivity training etc etc.

    So every officer knows what kind of potential headaches are involved in confrontations like this, even if celebrity isn’t involved to pump the balloon bigger and tighter. If you understand this context, then you understand how unlikely it is that a cambridge cop is going to antagonize a known and demonstrated black homeowner just for sh!ts and giggles. Unless he enjoys political crucifixion.

    That’s why I (and let me stress that this is simply my mileage) have a hard time believing that Gates was cooperative in identifying himself forthrightly as the owner and resident of the property, and demonstrating it. If he did that, a cop is going to go right to “have a nice night sir.” Or try to help. Or to explain that a neighbor reported a break-in and they wanted to be sure nothing bad was going on.

    Reading between the lines, my speculation as to what happened is that when the cops showed up Gates was already in pretty ill temper over the hassle getting into his house, and dealing with the door. And when the cops showed up, he went into his “racist cops hassle the black man” subroutine. If he was abusive and belligerent at that point, then we know why things escalated, right?

    I would not go so far as to suggest that the Cambridge police were utterly blameless in all this. Only the folks who were present know about that. But I do think that the responding officer was just trying to do his job, and he ran into a political sh!tstorm. He has my sympathy. Gates is IMO a known and demonstrated ideologue and a political opportunist, and I think he’s trying to spin himself as a blameless victim instead of someone having a really bad day who lost it and was a full participant in however things escalated.

  5. Nick Benjamin Says:

    Listen, where I live young white males face this kind of police action all the time. Back in the day, I was pulled over regularly by the police for some bogus reason or another. So why the ruckus when it happens to an older black guy? The rush to judgement based on a minuscule understanding of the entire story is very telling of peoples’ racial biases, though.

    Because when it happens to an older man it always happens to a black guy.

    And guys, even if the police story is true it’s still an outrage. Saying stupid shit (such as accusing an officer of being racist) is not illegal. Yelling is not illegal. Refusing to show id to a cop is illegal, but eventually he did show the dang id. Come on now give the guy a break.

    This reminds me of the incident where an idiot libertarian activist decided to get smart with the airport cops, and demanded to know what law required him to answer their questions. This is truly a smartass question to ask a policeman, because under the Constitution you don’t have to tell the cops anything, ever. As a result he was inconvenienced for half-an-hour while the TSA tried to figure out whether the money he was carrying was drug money.

    There was outrage that the evil TSA asked this guy questions for half-an-hour. These cops cuffed Gates, took him to the station, and gave footage of the arrest to national TV networks.

    So objectively anybody who was even a little miffed at the treatment of Steve Bierfeldt should be up in arms about the treatment of Gates. That Gates claims he was oppressed because of his race, and Bienfeldt claims it was his political views is irrelevant. Wrongful treatment by the cops is wrongful treatment by the cops.

  6. michael reynolds Says:

    1) Actually it is not against the law to refuse to show ID. It is if you’re driving, but not if you’re walking around minding your own business. And definitely not when you’re in your own home. Cops can request you show them ID, but you are not required to comply. This ain’t North Korea.

    2) Any cop dumb enough to think a late middle-aged man, walking with a cane, at noon, is burglarizing a home, is too dumb to be on the force. One of the great things about an experienced cop is that he develops a sixth sense: there’s no way in hell this looked like a crime to that cop.

    3) Cops need probable cause that a crime’s been committed. Mouthing off to a cop is not a crime.

    This was about a cop insisting on showing dominance, controlling, not tolerating disrespect.

    Obama was right: the police acted stupidly.

  7. Trescml Says:

    Classic case of two wrongs making a really big wrong. Gates mouthed off to the police and the police seemed to want to show they were in charge. Either side could have defused the situation, but neither did. Unfortunately instead of making this a teaching moment about anger management, it has turned into an exercise of blame.

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