Henry Louis Gates Jr., Politics, Provocation and the Media 7-24-09

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Politics, Provocation and the Media

By Richard J. Garfunkel

July 24, 2009


The other day a black man was arrested and led away in handcuffs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Historically would that be a big story which would resonate around the world and be mentioned in a press conference by the President of the United States? In most cases it would not. There have been plenty of African-American people arrested and incarcerated in the United States for good and bad reasons for more time than anyone alive could remember.

Of course, times do change and we are supposedly living in a more open, transparent and tolerant era, where sensitivity training and political correctness, in some areas, seems to abound. Cambridge, Massachusetts, the ultimate college town is not Meridian, Mississippi and never was. It is where Harvard and MIT are located, along with a number of other smaller and less known institutions of higher learning. It is also the home of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the only high school in the city. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the school was subject to criticism because of its seemingly inherent racism in its academic distribution of its student body, which led to the disbanding of its internal houses.

Almost by default, the original houses eventually represented a racial and/or class divide within the school itself. Pilot House was known for its “alternative” students who dressed and were perceived as counter-culture or alternative lifestyle, and who were allowed to address teachers by their first names in an era when this behavior was generally not acceptable. House A comprised mostly mid and lower class whites; B House was mostly African Americans; C House was mostly Latino, southern European, and Mediterranean; and D house comprised mostly students of various African descent. Finally, the vocational house known as Occupation Education or Oc-Ed (later to be known as Rindge Tech and finally RSTA) was a mix of lower-class students from across the municipality. Many may remember the well-known NY Knickerbockers basketball star Patrick Ewing, who was a graduate of Rindge, before he went to Georgetown University. He certainly benefitted by his basketball acumen as opposed to his academic achievements when it came to matriculating at that prestigious university.

Boston, as a community, was known at one time for its reputation of toleration, and was the home to many abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, who in 1832, at the Old African Meeting House, established the New England Anti-Slavery Society. One can also drive up Beacon Hill and see the remarkable Augustus Saint-Gauden’s plaque which commemorates the actions of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment and its heroic, but ill-fated attack up the sandy hills protecting the Confederate stronghold, Fort Wagner, in Charlestown, South Carolina. Shaw, with many others, lost his life there and his actions were chronicled in the movie, Glory. But of course Boston and the communities that surround that old and historic city have also had a checkered past regarding integration, school busing, and racial tension. When I went to college there in the early and mid 1960’s the big story was about busing and South Boston, known as “Southy” The two main players in opposition to de facto segregation were Louis Day Hicks and Catherine Craven, the 2nd woman elected to The Boston City Council. Anna Louise Day Hicks, who died in 2003 at age 87, was a politician and lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts. She was elected to the Boston School Committee in 1961. In January 1963, she became chairperson and seemed likely to be endorsed by the leading reform group, when, in June, the Boston chapter of the NAACP demanded “an immediate public acknowledgment of de facto segregation in the Boston public school system”.

At the time, thirteen city schools were at least 90% black — but the Committee refused to acknowledge the segregation. Hicks was recognized as the holdout, and within months she became Boston's most popular politician, but also the most controversial, requiring police bodyguards 24 hours a day. In 1967, she came within 12,000 votes of being elected mayor of Boston, running on the evasively coded slogan “You know where I stand.” The race against fellow Democrat Kevin White became so acrimonious that the Boston Globe broke an eighty-six-year tradition of political neutrality to endorse White. Hicks later served one term in the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1971 to 1973, becoming the first female Democrat to represent Massachusetts in the House. Hicks became nationally known in 1965 when she opposed court-ordered busing of students into inner-city schools to achieve integration. By refusing to admit segregation existed in city schools and by declaring that children were the “pawns” of racial politics, she came to personify the discord that existed between some working class Irish-Americans and African-Americans. “Boston schools are a scapegoat for those who have failed to solve the housing, economic, and social problems of the black citizen,” Hicks said. Her most notable campaign took place in autumn 1975, after a federal judge ordered Boston schools to expand their busing programs to comply with the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision. To counter the trend, Hicks started an organization called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) which actively engaged in incidents of massive resistance to school desegregation. In 1976, Hicks was elected the first woman president of the Boston City Council, largely on the strength of ROAR, which was then at its peak.

Hicks claimed that while 13 Boston schools were at least 90% “Black,” Chinatown schools were 100% Chinese, the Italian North End had schools that were 100% Italian American; and the neighborhood of South Boston contained schools that were mostly Irish American. The Boston Public Schools included a conglomerate of ethnic Caucasians with very few WASPs.

Of course that brings to mind the checkered history of African-Americans and their role in Boston professional sports. The Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to employ a black ballplayer. It took them until 1959 to sign one Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green to a contract and in those 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the so-called “color barrier” in baseball, Boston, which was a major force in baseball in the late 1940’s, declined to a second division club by the late 1950’s. With regards to the Boston Celtics, with their outstanding and progressive coach and general manager, Arnold “Red” Auerbach, they were pioneers with regards to playing black players. They also were the first team to put an all-Black starting lineup on the famous parquet floor of the old Boston garden. They were certainly rewarded with artistic and championship success, winning eight NBA titles in a row in the 1960’s, but were rarely supported by their fans until many years later. Their big star, Bill Russell, who was an individualist, and outwardly sensitive to the racial undercurrent in Boston, was unhappy with his treatment by the fans and the general citizenry of the city. Over the years since his signing with the Celtics in 1956, he voiced and wrote about his feelings over Boston and race. Be that as it may, times were different then, and Boston, like much of America has come a long way since those days.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent Harvard professor, who is on many boards, and has been the recipient of nearly 50 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards. Professor Gates was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981 and was listed in Time among its “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. On October 23, 2006, Gates was appointed the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University. In 2002 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Gates for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. On July 16, 2009, he was arrested by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, an officer who has been trained specifically in dealing with racial incidents and has taught a course on that same subject to fellow officers for five years

On the evening of the 16th, Sergeant James Crowley, who was investigating the report of a burglary, met Professor Gates at his front door, and has stated that he had given his name when asked by Professor Gates.. When Professor Gates was told that the officer was investigating a possible break in, Gates then stated, “Why, because I'm a black man in America?” When Gates repeated a request for Crowley's name, Crowley replied that he would only speak to Gates outside. Crowley stated that he desired to go outside at that time as “Gates was yelling very loud [sic] and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to EEC or other responding units”. Gates then followed Crowley from the house onto the porch, yelling at him. Crowley reported that he then warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Crowley reported that he then warned Gates again while at the same time withdrawing handcuffs to arrest Gates. Of course, how and why did this escalate and was it all necessary?

Gates told a different version of events, and stated that he established his identity, but demanded the name and badge number of the police officer, following him outside, at which time he was arrested for disorderly conduct, citing “loud and tumultuous behavior”  Gates and his attorney, Harvard colleague Charles Ogletree disputed the police report, with Gates noting that he has a bronchial infection contracted in China, which renders him incapable of yelling. The charges were later dropped by the Middlesex County district attorney's office, upon the recommendation of the city of Cambridge and the Cambridge Police Department, calling the incident “regrettable and unfortunate”.

According to published reports, Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, says that he is not racist, pointing to his actions trying to resuscitate Reggie Lewis while working as a campus police officer at Brandeis University in 1993. Crowley has also served as an instructor for the Lowell Police Academy since 2004, teaching a course entitled “Racial Profiling”. Crowley stated that has no “ill feelings toward the professor” but that he has nothing to apologize for. Sgt. Crowley has received strong public support from his police department as well as his union.

In an article written by Ms. Abby Goodnough, in the NY Times, she wrote that, “The dispute between Gates and Crowley centers on two things: which one treated the other rudely and whether they properly identified themselves. Gates, 58, says the sergeant repeatedly refused to reveal his name or badge number; Crowley, 42, says the professor initially refused to provide identification, and then produced only his Harvard ID card, which included no address, to prove he lived in the house. Crowley told a local radio station Thursday that President Obama “didn't know all the facts” and that Gates — a prolific scholar of African-American history and a leading intellectual — had been oddly belligerent from the start of their encounter July 16.

With all of this in mind, what does it all mean? Has the media ballooned this story way out of proportion? Is racial profiling still alive and well in Cambridge, or is it a necessary evil? As to racial profiling, why did it evolve in the first place? Is it a vestige of stereotypical abuses of the past, or are stereotypes rooted in a priori experiences and ongoing statistical reality? On the other hand was Professor Gates taking advantage of this unforeseen, unfortunate and ugly opportunity? Was he carrying on his back all the petty insults, and abuse that African-Americans have weathered for uncounted generations? Did he see an excellent opportunity to make a sociological point in his home town, and did police Sergeant James Crowley become the victim of circumstance and his own professionalism?

Basically one would think that a 58 year old man, who was in his own home, could have easily explained who he was, and displayed his driver’s license, which has his address. But, maybe he doesn’t drive. Maybe it wasn’t handy, and maybe Professor Gates felt that he is so well-known, that anyone should not only know who he is, but accept his word without further thought or investigation. When a police officer has come to my door, and it has happened a number of times over the past forty years, I act with extreme politeness, and offer that office all the information he/she wishes. Inherently police officers face bodily threats all the time, and I can easily understand their sense of survival, caution and self-preservation. Knowing that the police officer has had a long history of training in the field of racial sensitivity when it comes to police work, it seems hard to believe that he would wish for some type of confrontation. It is also hard to believe that Professor Gates posed any threat to the officer. The question now arises to why Professor Gates did not defuse this incident by providing more information?

All in all, the truth always seems to lie somewhere in the middle. In many instances, cooler heads should have prevailed. Police officers can get on their “high horse” and the average citizen should avoid any provocation that can escalate the anxiety level that involves police work. On the other hand, maybe the officer should have backed off and understood that this older guy had gotten angry over past abuses and grievances that had nothing to do with him. But the police officer was in someone else’s home and anything could happen, there was another man identified in the initial report, and stranger things have happened in the past.

The other question always remains, has the media blown this incident way out of proportion, and has Gates fanned the flames of this small event into something it never should have been? Is this a lesson for society, or another exposure of the so-called abuses of “profiling?” Or is this a “tempest in teapot,” exacerbated by one side or the other? One could question the police officer’s motives if one wanted to peal back, layer after layer, regarding his character, but he seems the wrong guy to go after. As to Professor Gates, he may really have a case here, and he may genuinely feel abused by the whole incident. He may be overly sensitive, but so what? He may have felt that he was being singled out because he was a black man, who caught up in an all too familiar assumption by the police. The African-American community has had a long contentious history with police forces in this country. Has some of that contentiousness been deserved, I am sure the answer is yes!

As to the media, it should step back, have a “cooling off” period and not jump to any conclusions about this being a seminal event that will be a “game-changer” with regards to police and community relations. Maybe we should all take a deep breath, and move on to more substantive problems that we all face.




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