A Harvard prof versus a Cambridge cop: Who do you believe?
Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By MICHAEL C. MOYNIHAN
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.