Racism in the heart of a liberal haven

July 28, 2009

PROMINENT BLACK Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates was arrested last week at his Cambridge, Mass., home for disorderly conduct after it had already been proven that Gates did indeed live there.

The incident ignited national outrage--even leading President Obama to comment that Cambridge Police "acted stupidly"--before the media and police unions swooped to the officer's defense.

The facts of the case point not to stupidity but to racism.

On the afternoon of July 16, one of Gates' neighbors called the police to report two men with backpacks were trying to enter a house. Gates, returning from a week in China where he had been filming a documentary, was having trouble with his lock. Eventually, he went around the back and he and his driver forced open the door. When the police arrived, Gates was immediately asked to step out on the porch.

As Gates recalled in an interview on TheRoot.com, "He didn't say, 'Excuse me, sir, is there a disturbance here, is this your house?'--he demanded that I step out on the porch, and I don't think he would have done that if I was a white person."

After Gates showed his identification, he requested the cop's name and badge number. His request was repeatedly ignored.

As Gates recalled, "The mistake I made was I stepped onto the front porch and asked one of his colleagues for his name and badge number. And when I did, the same officer said, 'Thank you for accommodating our request. You are under arrest.' And he handcuffed me right there. It was outrageous."

According to a 2004 study by the Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of the African Americans and half of Hispanics surveyed in October 2004 in Greater Boston said racial discrimination remained a serious problem that could cost members of minority groups jobs and promotions and made them feel unwelcome at stores, sporting events and restaurants.

Despite its local status as a liberal haven, Cambridge is no exception to racism in America.

Last year, a Black high school student working at Harvard University for the summer was questioned by Harvard police while unlocking his bike. Two years ago, the police received complaints as two Black student organizations played dodgeball in the Quad. The complaints questioned whether they should were actually students at the university.

Like this most recent incident, the common assumption has been to question the presence of minorities at one of the country's elite academic institutions.

IN THE immediate aftermath, Gates demanded an apology and many people agreed with him. Even President Obama, who has often steered clear of race-related issues, initially made a statement condemning the actions of the Cambridge police.

The police dropped the charges the following day in large part to the public outcry.

In the days following the arrest, the debate has shifted as the Cambridge police and the local media have gone on the offensive, printing glowing reports of arresting officer James Crowley. The ensuing discussion has been about whether James Crowley the cop is a racist and whether Gates was "belligerent."

Apparently, Crowley can't be a racist because he teaches a class on racial profiling and has Black friends.

None of this changes the fact that cops arrested and jailed a prominent middle-aged Black man with a cane for asking for the badge number of a cop at his own house. Forget "driving while Black"--Gates was arrested for "residing while Black."

Ridiculously, the police union has demanded an apology from Gates. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama have backed off their initial comments and are now saying that both parties acted inappropriately. Obama asked Crowley and Gates to join him for a beer at the White House. Gates has urged people to "move on."

But Gates was right when he demanded an apology, and Obama was right when he said the police acted stupidly. Far from moving on, this should be used as a springboard to fight the racial profiling that has become all too prevalent for Blacks and Latinos.

Henry Louis Gates' story got national attention because of his professional stature. He is just one of many who are harassed by cops everyday.

More attention needs to be paid to the daily harassment faced by people of color in this country. For his part, Gates has said that he wants to do a documentary on racial profiling, but what must ultimately happen is a revival of a civil rights movement from below that can take on racism, oppression and the system that needs and perpetuates it.

For all of the pundits' assertions of a "post-racial" society after the Obama election, racism is alive and well, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system.
Nick Chin, Boston

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