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Dear Skip

An open letter to Henry Louis Gates.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 2009 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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Dear Skip,

My first thought on hearing of your arrest was for your welfare, so I was relieved to learn that that the case against you had been dropped and you were off to join your family on Martha's Vineyard. From what I can piece together, you must have been exhausted after a long flight, exasperated to have your front door jammed, and then dumbfounded to find yourself suspected of breaking and entering your own home. To that point, you have my sympathy.


But thereafter your case becomes disturbing, and while the president's unwise comments turned a local episode into a national referendum, it's the local issue that troubles me. Like you, I live in Cambridge, commonly known as the "People's Republic of Cambridge" for its left-leaning political correctness. Our congressional district has not sent a Republican to Washington since 1955. Not surprisingly, the officers who came to your door--a rainbow of black, Hispanic, and white--were led by a man hand-picked to provide training on the avoidance of bias in policing. To accuse the Cambridge police of racial profiling, as you did, is about as credible as charging Barack Obama with favoring Republicans.


What puzzles me most in the report of your actions--or reactions--on July 16 is why you would have chosen, as I've heard you put it elsewhere, to "talk Black" to officer Crowley instead of "talking White" as you so eloquently and regularly do? These are distinctions I've heard you expound--how educated African Americans switch their register of speech depending on what part of themselves they want to get across. Many of us do something similar inside and outside our particular communities, but you make it sound like a sport that is also for African Americans a tool of survival. So why didn't you address the policemen as fellow Cambridgians? What was that "yo' mama" talk instead of saying simply, in the same register your interlocutor was using, "Look, officer, I'm sorry for your trouble. Thanks for checking on my house when you thought I was being burgled, but this is my home, and if you give me a minute, I'll find the piece of mail or license that proves it to you." It seems it wasn't the policeman doing the profiling, it was you. You played him for a racist cop and treated him disrespectfully. Had you truly feared bias, you would surely have behaved in a more controlled, rather than a less controlled, way.


Do you really think anyone in this country has reached adulthood without having undergone the humiliation of self-justification to police? As it happens, a few days prior to your arrest, I was pulled over on the highway near Saranac Lake, New York. My husband and I had driven into town for dinner and were on our way back to our camp in the Adirondacks. When I saw that I was being stopped, I said, "I don't get it. I'm going under 55 mph." Nonetheless, when the officer approached the car, I quickly rolled down the window, reached for my driver's license as my husband got the registration out of the glove compartment, and said to the officer as gently as I could, "Excuse me officer, have I done anything wrong"? (I had not noticed that one of our headlights was out: we were told to repair it at the next gas station.) It would not have occurred to this gray-haired Caucasian female to count on a policeman's sympathy; the last time I tried joking with a policeman, some forty years ago, my quip cost me an extra $15 on my fine.


Rather than taking offense at being racially profiled, weren't you instead insulted that someone as prominent as you was being subjected to a regular police routine? A Harvard professor and public figure--should you have to be treated like an ordinary citizen? But that's the greatness of this country: enforcers of the law are expected to treat all alike, to protect the house of a black man no less carefully than that of white neighbors. You and I entrust our protection to these police, and we also entrust to them the protection of Harvard students. These are the police who were called in on May 18 to deal with the shooting of Justin Cosby, 21, inside one of the Harvard dorms by suspects who, like him, were African Americans. Has any case ever been dealt with more discreetly--likely at least in part because it involved African Americans? Should we not be encouraging all students to live within the law and to consider ourselves on the side of the law unless clearly and manifestly demonstrated otherwise? Is it not for faculty to set an example of politeness, civility, responsibility, and cool temper?