A recent interview in the New York Times Magazine reminded me once again of what an arrogant, race-baiting, self-deluded and toxic presence Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates is on the American society landscape. It was Professor Gates, you will recall, who provoked a racial incident with a white Cambridge , Massachusetts police officer who was investigating a report that an African American male had broken into Gates’ home. The African American male was Gates himself, who had returned from a trip to find his door jammed, and jimmied his own front door. When Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley arrived at Gates’ abode to investigate a 911 call that said that two African American men had broken into the house, Gates answered the door and immediately accused the officer of racially profiling him. He eventually flashed his Harvard ID, then demanded the officers name and ID number as well. The officer asked him to come outside for that information, and Gates came out onto his porch, again accused him of racial bias, shouted over his words and insulted him. The officer, who was a trainer in the area of avoiding racial prejudice, asked the professor to calm down Gates continued to shout, and a crowd was gathering. After warning Gates that he was disturbing the peace, and would be arrested if he didn’t go inside—Gates kept saying it was his porch and he’d stay outside if he chose to—Crowley took the Harvard professor into custody.
Charges were quickly dropped, but Barack Obama, in a pattern that continued throughout his Presidency, weighed in on an event he know little about, and pronounced the white officer the villain of the episode. (Gates was a friend of the President’s, and, of course, the African American.) Obama was properly criticized for his knee-jerk reaction by many, including me. (My multiple articles about this mess are still trapped on the old Ethics Scoreboard, currently off line because the hosting company messed up.) Embarrassed, as he deserved to be, Obama pulled a transparent public relations stunt of inviting the white cop and the black scholar to the White House for a so-called “beer summit.”
In a word, “Yecchh.”
It is fair to say that a police officer who felt he was being abused arrested Gates in part to teach him a lesson about being respectful to police officers in the course of their duties, and it is also fair to say that a black academic whose career was largely based on his analysis of white racism immediately interpreted an officer doing his job by the book as deliberate racial oppression. The 2009 confrontation would have never escalated if Gates had treated the officer as a fellow human being rather than as a presumed foe because of his uniform and his color, and simply explained the circumstances calmly and without accusations.
Since then, Gates has become a celebrity academic, spending six seasons uncovering the ancestry of famous people as host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” (and cheating in the process, as I wrote about here.)
Earlier this month, the New York Times magazine revisited the kerfuffle with Gates. He said,
President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was. Then all of a sudden all these racists are beating up on him. My whole attitude was channeled through the desire to protect our first black president. But there was another motivation. I thought that it would be hubristic and dishonest if I compared what happened to me to what happens to black people in the inner city. I thought, If I didn’t have the protections of class and status [the result would have been very different.] When the policeman, Sgt. Crowley, and I met, I said, “Why did you arrest me?” He said, “I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to go home to my wife, because I was convinced that your partner was upstairs and he was going to come down and blow me away.” He told me he had gotten a call: “Two black guys are breaking into this house.” One of them answers the door — me — when he rang the bell, and I’m stepping over suitcases, because I’d just come back from a trip. Unbeknown to me, one pattern of thievery is bringing empty suitcases to a house. So the officer saw a black face, he saw the suitcases: That’s part of a profile. I was what [fellow Harvard professor] Barbara Johnson calls “an already-read text.” He couldn’t hear me, couldn’t see me. Well, that might be related to police excesses and abuses, but it’s a far end of the scale, and I was able to reverse what happened to me, unlike an Eric Garner. So my whole reaction to my arrest was determined by two things: The attacks on President Obama and my own determination not to claim too much for my own victimization.
- Obama’s comment wasn’t innocent, it was impulsive, unfair and irresponsible.
- The arrest may have been stupid, but Obama’s friend’s conduct was at least as stupid, and unlike the officer’s, based on racial bias.
- Gates adopts the now familiar refrain: criticizing Obama for anything is racist. My criticism, according to Gates, was racist. Obama’s comments were foolish and biased, and he earned every bit of criticism he got.
- The comparison with Eric Garner is outrageous and dishonest. Garner resisted arrest. Garner’s death was an accident, though one brought on by poor police judgment. Once again, the professor is implying that Crowley is a racist and that if he had not been a Harvard professor, he might have been killed.
- It was Gates who was making the officer “an already-read text’ by his own account! Crowley wasn’t profiling Gates by any definition of the word: he had been told that two black men had broken into the house, and Gates was in the house, and black. Moreover, Crowley’s explanation that he was concerned about the second housebreaker makes perfect sense. Never mind: Gates still frames the incident as a white police officer assuming that because Gates was black, he must be a criminal. Professors are supposed to be smarter than that, or at least have more integrity.
Later in the interview, he says that when he met Crowley at the “beer summit,” he told him, “I forgive you.” He never admitted any fault of is own, and tells the interviewer, even now, that he was “the victim.”
As long as people like Professor Gates are teaching college students about race, race relations in the United States will only get worse.