Named public service editor in January 2010. Served as special projects editor for The Chronicle the previous eight years. Started journalism career in 1987 as a reporter at the Charlotte Observer. Came to the The Chronicle in 1990 as a business writer and have held several positions, including South Carolina Bureau Chief and metro editor.
Posted July 23, 2009 06:32 pm - Updated July 23, 2009 08:06 pm

Racism raises its ugly head again

I’m not going to mince words: Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested at his house last week because he is black.

That is the only conclusion any reasonable person should draw from the incident that has now garnered international attention after President Obama’s comments about it   Wednesday night during his press conference. Mr. Obama, who admittedly is a friend of the renowned scholar, said the Cambridge (Mass.) police acted “stupidly” to arrest someone in his own home after he provided proof that he lived there after a neighbor had called authorities about a possible break-in.

Let’s run this one back again to make sure there is no misunderstanding -– Dr. Gates was arrested at his home after providing proof that he lived there after authorities had come to investigate whether he was breaking into the house.

Of course only Dr. Gates and the white cop who arrested him know exactly what was said inside the house, but no one is disputing – not even the officer --- that authorities were aware that the professor had a right to be where he was when they clapped the handcuffs on him.

In this photo taken by a neighbor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.  (AP)


Given that Dr. Gates is hardly imposing – I think he’s listed at 5-7, weighs about 145 and walks with the use of a cane -- I find it hard to believe the officer felt threatened by him. In his report, Officer James Crowley offers this account of what happened:

He said he arrived at the house and saw a man standing inside watching the officer from behind the front door. The officer said he asked the man to step outside, and Dr. Gates, who had identified himself by this time, refused. When Officer Crowley told Dr. Gates he was investigating a possible break-in, the professor is reported to have responded, “Why, because I’m a black man in America.”

Let’s stop here for a second. I don’t know any black man – including myself – who would say that, or at least not in that formal a tone. To me, that sounds like something made up by somebody who doesn’t quite get that it sounds made up.

Officer Crowley also states in his July 16 report that the professor started shouting at him, calling him a racist. He said Dr. Gates eventually provided his Harvard University ID badge, but when he went back outside the professor followed him and “continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias.” He said that he twice warned Dr. Gates to calm down or he would be arrested for disorderly conduct.

 “Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me,” Officer Crowley said in his report. “It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest.”

The 58-year-old Gates, who had just returned from a trip to China and had found the door to his home, stuck shut, which is why he was trying to force it open, offers a different account. He has admitted that he was peeved by the notion he was breaking into his own home, but said that he complied. Dr. Gates said he was arrested when he followed the officer onto his porch after asking but not receiving the cop’s identification.

I believe Dr. Gates version, primarily because the officer could have easily diffused the situation if he’d chosen. He could have simply told Dr. Gates that he was doing his duty, was sorry for the inconvenience and left.

End of story. No national controversy. But it appears the officer took offense at the temerity of this black man questioning his authority. For that, it seems, he had to be punished.

I know many people will disagree with my assessment. That’s fine. But most of them likely won’t have walked that mile in someone else’s shoes.

Poll: Do you think racial profiling is a problem in American law enforcement?