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Analysis Of The Racial  Profiling Arrest Of Henry Louis Gates By Dr. Martin Kilson, PhD, BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board

 
 

PROLOGUE

       Some six months ago the Harvard University community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was informed of the nasty racial profiling arrest of one its prominent faculty members—Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.  At the time of his arrest, Professor Gates was director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, and he also holds the Alphonse Fletcher University Professorship. He is a top-rank scholar in the field of Comparative Literature, and a top-rank scholar in the field of African American Literature. He  is also an academic entrepreneur of national repute, exemplified  in his extensive list of edited books, authored books, and  his production of several major PBS Television series on African-American society and African-American biographies.

     However, on July 16, 2009, the august Professor Henry Louis Gates experienced what literally multi-millions of ordinary African-American citizens have experienced at some point during the course of their lives throughout the 20th century and continue to experience here in the 21st century.  Namely, that regardless of their social mobility and professional mobility achievements, their person—their African-American self—is never quite beyond the reach of racist norms, racist  practices, and racist institutional proclivities that still permeate the nooks-and-crannies of our American democracy here in the first decade of the 21st century. Although our American society is today far beyond the legalized racial-caste status imposed on African-Americans when I was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, there are still numerous vestigial racist patterns rooted in the  Jim Crow era that persist here in the decade that has witnessed the election of the first African-American as president of the United States—President Barack Obama.

     Though centrist and conservative pundits were quick to employ the politically soothing term “postracial” to characterize America's racial dynamics following President Obama's election  in November 2008,  such “postracial  utterance”  is just another of the numerous “trickster verbal maneuvers”—as I call them— used by American conservatives. I say pay “postracial utterance” by conservatives no mind. Why? Because  conservatives' “postracial utterances” (by the way conservatives didn't vote for the Obama-Biden ticket) are  trickster verbal maneuvers that seek to mask our society's failure to shut the door on the long nightmare of America's oppressive racial-caste legacy. Police racial-profiling practices like those experienced by Harvard's Professor Henry Louis Gates reflect the persistence of our country's racial-caste legacy, so there is still a lot of work for liberals and progressives to do in order to fully vanquish America's racial-caste legacy.

     Perhaps the most pronounced  evidence of how police racial-profiling practices harass and ravage African-American lives,  are prison incarceration rates for African-American citizens. As I'll point out later in this article, prison incarceration data reported just six months before the election of President Obama on November 4, 2008, show some 4,777 Black males were imprisoned in our country for every 100,000 African-American men in the population. This compared with only 727 White males imprisoned per 100,000 White men in the population. What explains this monstrously disproportionate  incarceration gap between Black and White males?

    Racial-profiling police practices explain much of this racial incarceration gap. Commencing with the Nixon Administration's “War on Crime” (Nixon's Attorney General Edwin Mease concocted this) and morphed into “War on Drugs” in the early 1980s Reagan Administration (designated a “national security issue” in 1986), racial-profiling practices have involved  geographic-cum-logistic  allocation of police forces in a manner that , for over three decades, has disproportionately ensnared  more African-Americans  than Whites as violators of drug laws. 

      With some 2.3 million persons incarcerated as of 2007 (by 1972 there were about 700,000 incarcerated), the United States is the incarceration capitol among democratic countries. As reported in an important article on incarceration dynamics by a group of University of Oregon sociologists in the progressive journal Monthly Review (June 2009), “Those in prison due to drug possession now account for 53 percent of all federal prisoners, and 20 percent of state prisoners.” What's more, the University of Oregon study reports that the drug-related “offenses were victimless and nonviolent.” (p. 6)

      As of mid-2008, Black males were imprisoned on drug charges at 13 times the rate of White males, even though survey data on patterns of illegal drug use show conclusively that White Americans use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than African-Americans. Accordingly, after 30 years of racial-profiling police practices toward the African-American working-class sector especially, there are nearly  800,000 African-Americans in state and federal prisons, almost two-thirds of whom are imprisoned for non-violent drug-related offenses.

       Thus, although the legal systemic-racist Jim Crow era is vanquished, what I call “neo-racist vestiges of the Jim Crow era”, like racial-profiling police practices, persist. Practices that, here in the first decade of the 21st century, harass and ravage the lives of millions of African-American citizens. This, then, is how the racial-profiling arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates in  Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes on a national-level relevance for African-Americans in general. This is how aspects of the life-cycle of professional-level African-Americans like Professor Gates interconnects with the life-cycle of the most oppressed African-Americans such as imprisoned Black citizens.

     It should be noted as background to Professor Gates' experience, that the first cohort of African-American faculty at Harvard during the late 1960s and the 1970s also encountered nasty racial-profiling harassment by police in the city of Cambridge. That early group of African-American faculty at Harvard included myself in Harvard's Department of Government; Professors Derrick Bell and Clyde Ferguson in the Harvard Law School; Professor Preston Williams in Harvard Divinity School; Professors Ewart Guinier and Eileen Southern in the Department of African American Studies; Professor Nathan Huggins in the Department of History and Department of African American Studies; Professor Orlando Patterson in the Department of Sociology; and Professor Charles V. Willie in the Harvard School of Education.                                 

COURSE OF GATES' RACIAL-PROFILING EVENT   

    On a sunny day just after noontime on Thursday, July 16, 2009, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates (director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research) was arrested by Cambridge, Massachusetts, police on the front porch of his home, which is located on Ware Street in an upper middle-class neighborhood just two blocs from Harvard Yard. The Cambridge Police Department's public pronouncement of Professor Gates' arrest occurred on Monday  July 20, and the first news report I saw appeared in the Boston Globe (July 21, 2009)--a Tuesday—under the headline “Racial Talk Swirls With Gates Arrest”. That news report read in part as follows:

“Professor Gates, who has taught at Harvard for nearly two decades [1990 to 2009], arrived home on Thursday from
a trip to China to find his front door jammed, said Charles J. Ogletree, a law professor at Harvard who is representing him. He forced the door open with the help of his cab driver, Professor Ogletree said, and had been inside for a few minutes when Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department appeared at his door and asked him to step outside. Professor Gates, 58, refused to do so, Professor Ogletree said. From that point, the account of the professor and the police began to differ.”

     It is reasonable to say that a key point-of- conflict between the White Cambridge police officer and Professor Gates occurred when the police officer asked Gates “to step outside”. Gates was cognizant enough—savvy enough— about his citizenship rights to know that his legal status in-his-own-home permitted him freedom of speech vis-a-vis a police officer, while his status regarding freedom of speech outside his home (in public that is)  might be problematic. Accordingly, Gates ignored police officer Crowley's  initial request “to step outside”.    Instead Gates queried Crowley regarding his request: “Why, because I'm a black man in America”?

     At this point in the Gates-Crowley face-off or contretemps, Gates informed police officer Crowley that his presence in Gates' home was a racist affair—a racial profiling affair that is.  Or at least this is how Crowley wrote about his encounter with Gates in his official “Incident Report 9005127” to the Cambridge Police Department , which was available Online at boston.com. on July 21, 2009. Here's how Crowley characterized Professor Gates' response to his presence in his home:

“While I was making this statement [that he was investigating a break-in], Gates opened the front door and exclaimed, 'Why, because I'm a black man in America'? I then  asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence.

While yelling, he told me that it was none of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer.”

     Of course, from a progressive interpretive vantage point—my vantage point— Professor Henry Louis Gates' response to the White police officer Crowley was valid. Which is to say that Gates properly stood-his-ground, the ground of authoritativeness in his own home.  And, concomitant to this as an African-American citizen and professional, Professor Gates properly defended his African-American honor. This is my understanding of what police officer Crowley recorded in his “Incident Report” to the Cambridge Police Department when he observed that Professor Gates exclaimed—“Why, because I'm a black man in America”.

     It should also be mentioned here that the first public report of Gates' arrest in the Boston Globe (July 21, 2009), reported that  police officer Crowley “said a white female caller had notified the police around 12:45 p.m. of seeing two black men on the porch of the home at 17 Ware Street. The caller was suspicious after seeing one of the men 'wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry', according to the report.”

INTERPRETING GATES'  RACIAL PROFILING ARREST

      Upon entering Professor Gates' home, police officer Crowley asked for Gates' identification. Gates showed him  his Harvard University identification card, a document with Gates' photograph. Police officer Crowley presents a self-serving description of his initial encounter with Professor Gates in his “Incident Report” to the Cambridge Police Department:

“With the Harvard University identification in hand...I began walking through the foyer toward the front door [and] I could hear Gates again demanding my name. I again told Gates that I would speak with him outside. My reasons for wanting to leave the residence was that Gates was yelling very loud and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to [the Police Department....].”

     When Crowley reached the porch of Gates' home, he said in the “Incident Report” that he heard Gates say “Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside”. In subsequent news reports in the Boston Globe, Professor Gates denied he made this remark.  Never mind, however, that the remark, whether Gates made it or not, was not an illegal offense. Nonetheless, police officer Crowley persisted in his “Incident Report” with the tale  of Gates berating him as a racist:

“As I descended the stairs [of Gates' porch] to the sidewalk, Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him.”

      Now at this juncture in relating police officer Crowley's rendition of the Gates-Crowley contretemps, I should point out an important alternative rendition. Namely, the rendition by Professor Gates which he related to his lawyer, Professor Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School, who put Gates' rendition on record in the files of the Cambridge Police Department. Ogletree's statement was also published in the Online magazine The Root (July 20, 2009). In regard to police officer Crowley's appearance at the front door of Professor Gates' Ware Street home, Ogletree's report of  the first phase of Gates' rendition of the Gates-Crowley contretemps is as follows:

“Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door.... As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering  in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University.

The officer than asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into the kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver's license to the officer. Both included Professor Gates' photograph and the license includes his address.”

     As I noted the foregoing was the first phase of Gates' rendition of the Gates-Crowley contretemps, and in this phase it is patently clear that Gates produced  indisputable evidence that he lived at the 17 Ware Street  house. Accordingly, one would have thought that a reasonable-minded police officer would have recognized the validity of Gates' identification, thanked Gates for it, and exited Gates' home. But police officer Crowley was not “reasonable-minded”, but rather he was “racial-profiling minded”. This was made patently clear in the second phase of Gates' rendition as reported by Gates' lawyer Professor Ogletree.

“Professor Gates ...asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates' request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer's name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates' home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates.”

     What I dub the “racial-profiling mindset” of police officer Crowley that was revealed in   Professor Ogletree's report,  might be said to have had a “hard-core” and “soft-core” dimension. The “soft-core” feature is revealed in Crowley's refusal to respond to several requests from Gates for his name and badge number. I dare say that  Crowley would have surely responded to such a request  had, say, Professor Gates been a White Harvard professor rather than an African-American Harvard professor. There's no doubt about this whatever from the vantage point of  my interpretation of the Gates-Crowley contretemps..

     Be that as it may, I believe that the “hard-core” dimension of what I dub Crowley's “racial-profiling mindset” was mean-and-neurotic. Here's  how Professor Ogletree's report relates  the “hard-core” facet of Crowley's racial-profiling mindset:

“As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officer's colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification [officer Cowley], said to him, 'Thank you for accommodating my earlier request', and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.” (Emphasis Added)

      Now it was at this stage in the Gates-Crowley contretemps that, in his “Incident Report” to the Cambridge Police Department, police officer Crowley concocts an ostensibly legitimate but  phony “legal rationale” in support of  his arrest action against Professor Gates.  Here's how Crowley fashioned his phony “legal rationale” for arresting  Professor Gates:

“Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the [other] police officers and citizens [on the street] who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates' outbursts.”

     This, then,  was Crowley's cleverly concocted view of  what might be called the “cause-and-effect-dynamics” surrounding Crowley's  arrest of  Professor Henry Louis Gates by hand-cuffing him on Gates' front porch. Crowley was determined to persuade his superiors in the Cambridge Police Department of the validity of his arrest of Professor Gates, so he repeats his concocted tale before concluding  his “Incident Report” :

“For a second time I warned Gates to calm down while I withdrew my department issued handcuffs from their carrying case. Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me. It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest.”

   (Let me note at this point in this essay that I was an academic colleague of Professor Henry Louis Gates at Harvard University from 1991 to 2003, when, holding my last faculty position around Harvard as Frank G. Thomson Research Professor, I retired. During this period, I was a member of the governing board of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute of which Professor Gates was director).

     Now when the arrest of Professor Gates  became public in mid-July, I happened to be residing in a village in southwest New Hampshire, not far from the city of Keene, the only city in western New Hampshire. Keene has a first-class and liberal daily newspaper, The Keene Sentinel, which carried informed reports on Gates' arrest and aftermath. In an editorial in the Keene Sentinel (July 24, 2009), the editor presented the following observation on Gates' arrest:

“As everyone knows by now, eminent Harvard author and African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested the other day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a passerby called the police as Gates and another man were forcing open his own front door. The incident took place in broad daylight. The news flew around the world: 'Police accused of racial profiling', was a popular headline. 'Harvard professor accuses police of racism over arrest' read another. Clearly, this controversy casts a harsh light on the state of race relations in America.”  (Emphasis Added)

      Of course,  a facet of the  “harsh light” that Gates' arrest cast on American race relations occurred in Cambridge, in the form of quasi-embarrassment on the part of the Cambridge Police Department.  For within two days of the public announcement of Professor Gates' racial-profiling inspired arrest, the New York Times (July 22, 2009) carried a news report headlined - “Charges Against Black Harvard Professor Are Dropped”.  The news report observed that:

“Disorderly conduct charges against the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. were dropped Tuesday [July 21], but Professor Gates said he wanted a personal apology from the Cambridge police officer who arrested him last week on the front porch of his home. Professor Gates...said he thought it was because he is black that the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, had not at first believed he lived in the up-scale home. ...He also said he wanted to make a movie about the subject [racial profiling] and take other steps to keep it from happening to someone else. 'If it could happen to me', he said, 'it could happen to anybody—anybody black....' ” (Emphasis Added)

GATESGATES' HARSH LIGHT ON RACISM: (I) RACISM IS PERSISTENT

     The editor of The Keene Sentinel offered a perceptive and keen observation on “Gatesgate” (journalistic abbreviation for the Gates arrest used by Frank Rich in his New York Times , August 2, 2009, column) by concluding it cast “a harsh light on the state  of race relations in America”. From my interpretive vantage point, the editor's observation was self-evident, and it was also self-evident to the African-American columnist on the Boston Globe--Adrian Walker—who  observed in his Boston Globe (July 24, 2009) column, “Do I believe race was part of this [Gatesgate]? Of course.” He continued:

“I don't believe for one second that Alan Dershowitz [Harvard Law School professor], in the same situation, would have ended up with a mug shot. First, his neighbor  probably wouldn't  have called the police, even if she didn't recognize him. Second, Crowley probably would have gone away.”

     The Boston Globe African-American columnist Adrian Walker's affirmative response to the query- “Do I believe race was part of [Gatesgate]?”- was replicated widely among African-American citizens generally. And especially among the African-American professional class.

      A news report on Gatesgate in the New York Times (July 24, 2009) was headlined-- “Case Recalls Tightrope Blacks Walk With Police”. One Black professional interviewed for the New York Times report was Ralph Medley, a retired university professor of philosophy and English living in Chicago, who remarked: “I think it's [Gatesgate] worse than stupid. I think it was mean-spirited and ill-intended.” Another Black professional interviewed was Wayne Martin, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who remarked: “It seems to me that Dr. Gates was simply arrested for being upset, and he was arrested for being upset because he's a black man.”

     African-American professionals living in the Greater Boston area expressed their experience with police racial profiling in interviews published in a Boston Globe (July 24, 2009) news report titled- “Accomplished But Not Insulated: Some Successful Blacks Find Gates' Case All Too Familiar”. In the first news of Professor Gates' arrest carried in the Boston Globe (July 21, 2009), the article included an interview with Professor S. Allen Counter of the Harvard Medical School, who said that he and some of his medical school colleagues were “deeply disturbed about the actions of the Cambridge police. ...My colleagues and I have asked the question of whether this kind of egregious act would have happened had professor Gates been a white professor.”

     Furthermore, the Gatesgate experiences of Boston area Black professionals was elaborated on in an Op.Ed. Page article titled “Racial Profiling Is Alive And Well” in the Boston Globe (July 22, 2009), authored by Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. As Carol Rose views Gatesgate:

“The [Gatesgate] incident also flies in the face of emerging view in the United States—and in Massachusetts—that we are living in a post-racial society, that race no longer matters, as evidenced by the fact that we have elected an African-American president and governor.

But this and similar incidents that take place every day illustrate that we are far from being a post-racial society. Targeting black men as 'suspicious' has long been a problem in Massachusetts law enforcement.” (Emphasis Added)

       What Gatesgate tells us about the persistent tenacity of racist forms in American life (simultaneously alongside an important decline in America's racist forms as President Obama's election indicates), was pointed out by the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—John Payton. In an article titled “Can You Trust The Police? The Skip Gates Incident” published in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Online magazine, The Defenders Online (July 21, 2009), Payton observed that Cambridge police officer James Crowley was acting cavalierly “on the premise that police should be obeyed.” Indeed says Payton, “the officer was not invited [in Gates' home] and was, arguably, not authorized to enter Skip's home.” Payton continued his legal critique of Gatesgate thus:

“Legally, there was nothing improper about Skip declining to step outside and talk [with the police]. Nothing at all. The officer claimed that Skip was yelling at him. There is nothing illegal about yelling in your own home. Nothing. Little wonder that the 'charges'have been dismissed [by Cambridge Police Department].”

      Finally, an important analytical observation to present in this subsection discussion of the broad-based dimensions of Gatesgate's harsh light on persistent racist patterns is to draw attention to two crucial aspects of police racial-profiling behavior. One crucial aspect relates to the numerous racial-profiling incidents that still affect African-American citizens, especially African-American males. A second crucial aspect relates to the incredibly wide perceptions among African-American citizens regarding the persistence of police racial-profiling behavior toward them.    

  

      Excellent Poll Data on the topic of police racial-profiling behavior can be found in a perceptive article on Gatesgate by the African-American New York Times statistician,  Charles Blow, titled “Welcome To The 'Club'”, in the New York Times (July 25, 2009). In overall nationwide terms, Charles Blow's article reports the following:

“A New York Times/CBC News poll conducted last July [2008] asked: 'Have you ever felt you were stopped by the police just because of your race or ethnic background?' Sixty-six percent of black men said yes. Only 9 percent of white men said the same.” (Emphasis Added)

     Also as of mid-2008, some 43% of all African-Americans said yes to the poll query- “Have you ever felt you were stopped by the police just because of your race or ethnic background?” Charles Blow's New York Times article also offered data from a probe of police racial-profiling behavior in New York city, saying that “last year the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York law firm specializing in human rights, released a damning study of the racial-profiling practices of the New York Police Department.” The study uncovered the following:

It found that more than 80 percent of those stopped and frisked were black or Hispanic. The report also said that when stopped, 45 percent of blacks and Hispanics were frisked compared with 29 percent of whites, even though white suspects were 70 percent more likely than black suspects to have a weapon.” (Emphasis Added)

     Thus the hard evidence regarding police racial-profiling harassment of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, is extensive. The New York Times statistician Charles Blow's evidence presented above covers 2008, and if we hazard a guess based on the Gatesgate incident of police racial-profiling practice, there's every reason to think that nationwide police racial-profiling harassment of African-Americans in 2009 remains significant.

GATESGATES' HARSH LIGHT ON RACISM: (II) PRESIDENT OBAMA'S IMPACT

     Accordingly, inasmuch as police racial-profiling vis-a-vis Black people generally remains significant today, I concur with the argument presented by the New York Times African-

American columnist Bob Herbert, in his New York Times (August 1, 2009) column titled “Anger Has Its Place.” Bob Herbert introduced his cogent and fervent critique of police racial-profiling in general and in regard to Gatesgate in particular thus:                               

“If Professor Gates ranted and raved at the cop who entered his home uninvited with a badge, a gun and an attitude, he didn't rant and rave for long. The 911 call came in about 12:45 on the afternoon of July 16 and, as The Times has reported, Mr. Gates was arrested, cuffed and about to be led off to jail by 12:51. The charge: angry while black.” (Emphasis Added)

     In the foregoing observation on Gatesgate, Bob Herbert affirms my  interpretive vantage point on Gatesgate—namely, that Professor Henry Louis Gates was a victim of police racial-profiling behavior. When referring  to President Barack Obama's comment on Gatesgate at his prime-time televised press conference on Wednesday July 22, 2009, Bob Herbert's column is supportive of Obama's criticism of Gatesgate, supportive of President Obama's observation that in arresting Professor Gates the Cambridge police “acted stupidly”.  Herbert is also supportive of President Obama's comment that the country can draw useful lessons regarding our racial legacy from Gatesgate. 

     However, Bob Herbert remarks that  within two days following President Obama's gut-level comment on Gatesgate, a virtual tsunami of antipathy spread among millions of White Americans toward President Obama's comment that Cambridge police “acted stupidly”. Bob Herbert is absolutely fervent in his critical commentary on the conservative reaction of millions of White citizens and of conservative media pundits President Obama's original gut-level comment on the arrest of Professor Gates.  As Bob Herbert put it in his New York Times column:

“The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up [Gatesgate] as a 'teachable moment', but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it— especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill. I have nothing but contempt for that message.” (Emphasis Added)

      Mind you, Bob Herbert had his own list of  useful lessons to be drawn from Gatesgate for advancing race relations. For instance, Herbert observed that “You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran. ...You can even be wrong in what you are saying. There is no law against that. It is not an offense for which you are supposed to be arrested. That's a lesson that should have emerged clearly from this [Gates-Crowley] contretemps.” Another lesson Herbert had in mind was that Gatesgate could help White Americans face up to the massive evidence that police racial-profiling behavior injures millions of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. Here's how Bob Herbert put it:

“Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no good reason.  New York City cops make upwards of a half-million stops of private citizens each year, questioning and frequently frisking these men, women and children. The overwhelming majority of those stopped are black or Latino, and the overwhelming majority are innocent of any wrongdoing. A true 'teachable moment' would focus a spotlight on such outrages and the urgent need to stop them. But this country is not interested in that.” (Emphasis Added)

     That Bob Herbert  column-- “Anger Has Its Place” in the New York Times (August 1, 2009)-- caught my attention vividly. Why? Because as a keen follower of Herbert's liberal-reformist writings, the August 1st  article  was perhaps the most ideologically progressive of his articles. Herbert used his August 1st article to characterize the reactionary racial profiling arrest of Professor Gates in an unmistakably progressive manner. He  used his column to implore Black folks to speak-out-against racial profiling harassment in all of its nefarious forms:

“Black people need to roar out their anger at such [police racial-profiling] treatment, lift up their voices and demand change. Anyone counseling a less militant approach is counseling self-defeat. As of mid 2008, there were 4,777 black men imprisoned in America for every 100,000 black men in the population. By comparison, there were only 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white men. While whites use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than blacks, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.” (Emphasis Added)

      The foregoing was the second-to-last paragraph in Bob Herbert's New York Times (August 1, 2009) column, and progressive as its message to reverse police racial-profiling and especially the consequence of massive African-American male incarceration rate (nearly 1 million inhabit the country's prison system) was, Bob Herbert had an additional coda in tow, so to speak. That coda related to Herbert's seemingly strong feeling that , in the ninth year of 21st century American society, “Most whites do not want to hear about racial problems....”  (Emphasis Added)

     In this progressive critique of millions of White Americans' persistent indifference to racial problems in our country, Bob Herbert joins a similar observation recently made by the cultural studies analyst Professor Michael Dyson of Georgetown University, who observed regarding Gatesgate— in the USA Today (July 24, 2009)— that “Whites don't live with the daily knowledge that their children may be arbitrarily subjected to police brutality or profiling”.

     And while this feeling on Herbert's part depresses him no end,  he is also depressed by the downside of President Obama's  impact on Gatesgate. The negative side of Obama's impact on Gatesgate stemmed from his inability to standby his initial gut-level comment on Professor Gates' arrest (namely, that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly”), preferring instead to pander to White attitudes,  Here's how Bob Herbert formulated his concerns regarding President Obama's retreat from his original gut-level response to Gatesgate at his July 22nd press conference: “...President Obama would rather walk through fire than  spend his time dealing with them [our country's racial problems].”  (Emphasis Added)

     Following this observation on what might be called President Obama's problematic ideological interface with our country's racial problems, Bob Herbert, gives expression to an unmistakably  depressive feeling toward America's persistent racial problems. He does this by articulating  a rather dire prediction. Namely:  “We're never going to have a serious national conversation about race.” (Emphasis Added)

WHITES' ANTIPATHY TO GATESGATE &  OBAMA'S INITIAL REACTION

    To the multi-millions of liberal and progressive African-American citizens here in the first decade of 21st century American society (that is, those 17 million African-Americans who voted for the Obama-Biden ticket in November 2008),  I say let's hope  that the dire prediction by the  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's is wrong.  I say this because as a leftist African-American intellectual who considers himself an ideological disciple of  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I prefer to hope that the still high-level indifference among many Whites toward seriously grappling with and rectifying our country's  persistent racist patterns,  can be overcome.

     No doubt, there is a sizable segment of White Americans who fashioned antipathy toward Professor Henry Louis Gates for what I call standing-his-ground and defending his African-American honor against racial-profiling police in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Furthermore, this antipathy against Professor Gates among multi-millions of White Americans—antipathy aided by rightwing pundits on major television networks such as Fox New (pundits like Glenn Beck) and CNN Cable News (pundits like Lou Dobbs)—has extended to President Barack Obama because of  his gut-level criticism of Cambridge police at his July 22nd press conference. As a result, within several days of his gut-level criticism (Cambridge police “acted stupidly”) President Obama back-peddled to a  politically bland and pallid position, causing him to twist-and-turn on Gatesgate so as to regain approvability among a sizable segment of White Americans.

     However, a report in the Boston Globe (July 31, 2009) related that  “A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [taken July 22-26] ... indicated  that the president's approval ratings among whites slipped from 53 percent late last week to 46 percent early this week.”  Another report in the USA Today (July 31, 2009)  related the following: “There are signs that the [Gatesgate] incident  has damaged Obama politically. A poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found that 41% disapproved of Obama's handling of the Gates' controversy, compared with 29% who approved.”

     The USA Today (July 31, 2009) news report also related additional bad news for President Obama. Namely, that his approval ratings “fell especially among working class whites [and]...among whites in general, more disapprove than approve of his [“acted stupidly”] comments by a 2-1 ratio.”  Now whether the Gatesgate-sparked antipathy among some two-fifths of White citizens toward President Obama today will translate into antiObama electoral responses by such White citizens in the 2012 presidential election remains to be seen. 

CONCLUSION: IMPORTANCE OF THE BLACK VOTER BLOC IN THE OBAMA ERA”

      A politically ominous event with regard to the attitudes of  a significant segment of White citizens toward President Obama occurred in early September 2009. Just two  months after the Gatesgate affair receded as top-level television and newspaper item, a rightwing Republican member of the House of  Representatives from South Carolina—Congressman Joe Wilson— violated the decorum rules governing the United States Congress by shouting “you lie” at President Obama during his nationally televised address to the Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday, September 9. Such patent disrespect  by members of Congress toward a president addressing Congress is a monstrous violation of the U.S. Congress' rules of decorum and is therefore forbidden.

     Happily, thanks to the leadership of the Black Congressional Caucus—especially its highest ranking figure, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina— Representative Joe Wilson was formally reprimanded  for publicly insulting President Obama. As the House Resolution of September 15, 2009 rebuking Representative Joe Wilson put it:

“Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina [Joe Wilson] was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House; Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on  September 9, 2009.”

     Owing to the presence of some 42 African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives and to their congressional organization called the Black Congressional Caucus, it was possible for the Democratic Party-controlled Congress to officially condemn what I and millions of other African-Americans view as South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's racist-inspired disrespect toward President Obama. Of course, on one level this was just a symbolic official victory defending the honor of the first African-American president of the United States against racist posturing by a White member of the United States Congress . However, on the broader level of the post -Civil Rights Movement era of the American political system, the House of Representatives' reprimand of Representative Joe Wilson  was a substantive victory in defense of Black people's honor in American society.

     Thus, in this connection, it is important to point out here the effective maximal Black Voter Bloc electoral mobilization that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. First, some 17 million-plus African-Americans voted in 2008. Second, this amounted to a massive vote turnout by African-Americans—some 65% of  eligible Black voters.  A proportion that some post-Election Surveys claim was several percentage points higher that the turnout of eligible White voters , while other post-Election Surveys claim that the Black voter turnout was several percentage points lower than the White turnout. Be that as it may, it is patently clear that the Black Voter Bloc voted at an historically high level in the 2008 election.

     Finally, it is especially important to point out that the Black Voter Bloc supported the 2008 Obama-Biden Democratic ticket at 90% level. I argue in a chapter on the Black Voter Bloc role in the 2008 election that will appear in a forthcoming New York University Press book edited by the University of California-Berkeley political scientist Professor Charles Henry, that it was this 90% level of Black Voter Bloc support for the Obama-Biden ticket (in key “battle ground states” like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, etc.)that ensured Obama's election to the White House.

     Alas.  Here in November 2009—12 months after Obama's victorious election as president—dark political clouds hang over the Obama Administration. It is struggling to pass its high-priority healthcare legislation. Also the approval rating of President Obama has , for the first time since his Inauguration, fallen below 50% in several polls. Accordingly, the upcoming November 2010 Congressional Election takes on a very special significance for the Obama Administration's ability to achieve crucial legislation during the second half of its tenure in office, especially legislation that will help reverse the weak job market in the country. Some 10.5% of Americans are unemployed and the jobless rate facing African-Americans is at Depression level—15.5%. And when you add the “underemployment rate” , the full -jobless crisis for African-Americans is between 30% and 35%!

     Thus, one important electoral dimension of all of this is patently clear. Namely, the Black Voter Bloc's high-level electoral mobilization in 2008 will have to be repeated in the November 2010 Election. If  in the upcoming 2010 Election the Democratic congressional candidates can hold on to  a small majority of White voters' support –in combination with a high-level mobilization of the Black Voter Bloc—the outcome of the 2010 Election could be favorable to the Obama Administration's ability to achieve crucial legislation during the second half of its tenure in office.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Dr. Martin Kilson, PhD - Hails from an African Methodist background and clergy: From a great-great grandfather who founded an African Methodist Episcopal church in Maryland in the 1840s; from a great-grandfather AME clergyman; from a Civil War veteran great-grandfather who founded an African Union Methodist Protestant church in Pennsylvania in 1885; and from an African Methodist clergyman father who pastored in an Eastern Pennsylvania milltown--Ambler, PA. He attended Lincoln University (PA), 1949-1953, and Harvard graduate school. Appointed in 1962 as the first African American to teach in Harvard College and in 1969 he was the first African American tenured at Harvard. He retired in 2003 as Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Emeritus. His publications include: Political Change in a West African State (Harvard University Press, 1966); Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); New States in the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 1975); The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays (Harvard University Press, 1976); The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African American Intelligentsia (Forthcoming. University of MIssouri Press); and The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1900-2008 (Forthcoming). Click here to contact Dr. Kilson.

 

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Issue 357
January 7, 2010

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