The Magazine

Gates-gate

A Harvard prof versus a Cambridge cop: Who do you believe?

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By MICHAEL C. MOYNIHAN
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On Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, across from the Harvard campus, the Maoist proprietors of Revolution Books provide reasonably priced pamphlets from the Revolutionary Communist Party (Mao Tse-tung's Immortal Contributions, $4.95) and offer for purchase "many volumes" of Stalin's writings. If the neophyte finds the jargon-laced language of dialectical materialism indecipherable, but is nevertheless determined to irritate his capitalist parents, further up Massachusetts Avenue the Center for Marxist Education, on the second floor above -Teddy's Shoes, will, for a modest fee, help separate the proletarian wheat from the bourgeois chaff.

It was this atmosphere of ultra-radical chic that William F. Buckley evoked when famously declaring a preference to entrust the U.S. government to the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory rather than the Harvard faculty.

Those not breathing the rarefied air of radical Cambridge might chuckle, but many Cantabrigians, 88 percent of whom cast a ballot for Barack Obama, consider the mocking appellation given their city, "The People's Republic," a badge of honor. The city's mayor, E. Denise Simmons, is the first black lesbian mayor in the United States, having succeeded Ken Reeves, Cambridge's first gay black mayor. The Cambridge Police Department has long tried to mirror the city's cultural and demographic shifts. As one police officer said in 1997, after the appointment of the city's first "liaison to the gay community," the Cambridge cops are as diverse as the city they serve: "[W]e have a black commissioner, female deputies, black deputies, gay officers."

It was in this tradition of progressive policing that former Cambridge police commissioner Ronny Watson, the first African American to head the department, tapped Sergeant James Crowley to teach a class on the dangers of racial profiling to young police recruits. Crowley, who has taught the seminar for five years, is by all accounts respected by colleagues of all races and, one presumes, particularly sensitive to the issue of racial discrimination. But that all changed last week, when he slapped a pair of handcuffs on Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.

The undisputed facts of the case are these: Returning from a trip to China, Gates arrived at his Cambridge home to find his front door was jammed. With the help of his driver, he attempted to pry the uncooperative door loose. A passerby observing what appeared to be a break-in in progress (Gates's house, according to media reports, was recently burgled), alerted the police, and Crowley showed up to investigate. It is at this point that Gates's and Crowley's stories diverge, though both agree that, before being arrested, Gates yelled to a gathering crowd of neighbors and police, "Is this how you treat a black man in America?"

According to the police report, Gates reacted in a "loud and tumultuous" manner, justifying his arrest on disorderly conduct. Whether or not it was appropriate to haul Gates to the police station--and a compelling case can be made that loud and boorish behavior, while inadvisable in such situations, shouldn't be an arrestable offense--is at this point largely irrelevant. Gates isn't quibbling with what constitutes "disorderly conduct," but rather maintains that he was "racially profiled" by a "rogue policeman" who "couldn't stand a black man standing up for his rights."

Despite a lack of evidence suggesting that Crowley was motivated by racial animus--he used no racist language, for instance, and is being supported by a black officer who arrived at the scene--Gates flatly claims that he "presumed that I was guilty because I was black. There was no doubt about that."

Many of Gates's defenders agree. The single-named journalist Touré, writing in The Daily Beast, argued that "Malcolm X's 40-year-old quote is still true: 'What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.' " Boston-based journalist Callie Crossley compared the incident to the case of Charles Stuart, a Bostonian who murdered his wife and told police that a "black man" had committed the crime, setting off a two-month manhunt for an invented suspect.

Cambridge has seen such cases before. It is hardly surprising that in a city--and at a university--where discussions of "institutional" racial bias proliferate, so do frequent and imprecise accusations of racism. Earlier this year, Harvard prevented an African-American student from graduating when a visiting acquaintance was implicated in a campus murder. The student, who had previously been brought up on disciplinary charges, had been "singled out," she complained to the Boston Globe, because "I'm black and I'm poor and I'm from New York and I walk a certain way and I keep my clothes a certain way."

When former Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that superstar academic Cornel West spend more time on traditional scholarship and less on recording hip-hop CDs, West accused him of racism and decamped to Princeton. It is a testament to the flimsiness of such charges that Summers went on to an important position in the Obama administration.

As in the Summers-West spat, it is important to note that Gates isn't claiming that the Cambridge police force is institutionally racist and in need of a purge. Indeed, Gates says that if Crowley "apologizes sincerely, I am willing to forgive him," and has repeatedly said that the white woman who called the police did the right thing. What is most important, he says, is that this be a "teaching moment"; a chance to disabuse Americans of the notion that we live in a "post-racial society" because of the election of Barack Obama. "America," he told an interviewer, "is just as classist and just as racist as it was the day before the elections."

In other words, pay no attention to the fact that the mayor of Cambridge, the governor of Massachusetts, and the president of the United States--all of whom have spoken out in his favor--are African American. According to Gates, that only serves to obscure the true nature of our society.

In the Washington Post, Lawrence Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and self-identified "best friend" of Gates, wrote that the arrest proves that "Ain't nothing post-racial about the United States of America." Editorial pages and liberal websites have picked up this theme and are littered with columns sarcastically "welcoming" the professor to the "post-racial America."

One needn't believe that America is "post-racial" to think that Gates's accusations against Crowley are both fatuous and defamatory. But it is sheerest academic fantasy to pretend that the country is still beset with endemic racism. Note that Gates-gate is the largest "racial controversy" of Obama's presidency, one that has dominated cable news and opinion pages, while consisting of a series of unfortunate events in which race isn't a clear factor.

Pace Touré, Malcolm X's aphorism is an anachronism: These days we call a black man with an advanced degree "Mr. President.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.