OPINION: What Do You Call A Black Man At Harvard?

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What Do You Call A Black Man At Harvard?

Years ago, the answer to this question would be the n-word. Today its Esquire, Doctor, Congressman, Professor or President. Unfortunately, the police in Cambridge did not receive that memo before they arrested Harvard Professor, Skip Gates, as he was treated as just another n-word by the police.

Cambridge is supposed to be liberal city, full of progressive intellectuals who look down on antiquated philosophies, such as racism. Scholars from all sorts of backgrounds come to Cambridge to study and teach at Harvard and MIT. The idea of Cambridge as a liberal, tolerant, progressive city stands in sharp contrast to the racial profiling that occurs there everyday, which was exposed by Gates’ arrest.

What does it say about America if racial profiling occurs in one of its most progressive, racially tolerant cities?

Black people all across the country are constantly forced to show their ID’s to police to justify their presence and prove they’re not criminals. Black people are racially profiled in predominantly black neighborhoods as possible drug dealers  or gang bangers and in white neighborhoods as possible thieves who don’t belong in those communities.

Gates’ arrest speaks as much to the racism of his neighbors in his upper class Cambridge neighborhood as it does to racial profiling by the Cambridge police. If an elderly white man was struggling with the door to his house as Gates was, one might think his neighbors would probably offer to help him or at least find out what was going on, rather than calling 911 to report a possible break in. In Massachusetts, the presence of a black male in a wealthy community in any capacity is enough to make a nosy racist neighbor call the police on him.

Gates arrest for “disorderly conduct” stems from his interaction with the officer who came to his house. The arresting officer, Crowley, has a reputation in Cambridge for racially profiling and harassing African Americans. The fact that Gates had to show his ID to prove that he lived in his own house and was not, in fact a criminal who was robbing it, is bad enough, arresting him for getting angry about it added insult to injury. If a 60 year old white man came to the door voluntarily I doubt he would be asked to show ID to prove he lived there.

According to Gates’ friend and Harvard colleague, Professor Charles Ogletree, after being asked for his ID, Gates repeatedly asked Crowley for his badge number as was his right to do.

The arresting officer, Crowley had this to say about the incident, “While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me.” Crowley also claimed that Gates yelled at him and was being disorderly. Ogletree said the same thing in much in different terms, saying Gates “expressed his frustration at being subjected to the threat of arrest in his own home.”

For a man as distinguished as Gates to be forced to prove he was actually a Harvard Professor, who actually lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, could be frustrating.  The disorderly conduct charges seem to stem from the officer taking offense at Gates’ claim about racial profiling. If Crowley had gone through some racial sensitivity training, maybe he would not be surprised that Gates was angry at perceived racial profiling. To be feel you are being treated as a common criminal because of your race is very hurtful and dehumanizing, especially for someone like Gates who might not have to deal with that type of police racism as much as other African Americans.

I talked to Black Cambridge cop about racial profiling in Cambridge recently. He told me that while all police officers in Cambridge racially profile, black officers were smarter about it. He elaborated saying that while black officers check clothes, age, and demeanor of men while profiling African Americans, white officers were “stupid about it” and simply profiled all African Americans, without any regard to the rest of their appearance. This explains why a well groomed, 60-year-old man wearing a blazer and glasses would get the same treatment as a young black man with baggy pants and a doo-rag in Cambridge.

Gates has written a lot bout race and class. In his books and PBS specials, he talks about, in some ways ,relating more to his white neighbors and colleagues than to working class blacks. If anything, his arrest was a reminder of the fact that despite his house on the Vineyard, accolades, golf club membership, and tenure at Harvard, in the eyes of the law he was still another black man who was probably a criminal and that he had more in common with working class African Americans than he thought.

When I was 17, I was arrested for trespassing in Cambridge, simply for hanging out on my own friend’s steps. The arrest came not long after I was accepted to Columbia University and was named a merit scholar finalist. When you’re an African American who has achieved success in the mostly white world of academics and managed to achieve acceptance into white establishments, being racially profiled is a grim reminder to what most working class African Americans are constantly reminded to every day; that in the eyes of police officers you are threats to society and possible criminals.

In an interview I did with Harvard Professor Ogletree last year he said of Obamas’ election, “It doesn’t mean, as some of my dearest friends say, that we’re in a post racial era, so if you and I walked out this building right now, we know we’re going to be profiled in parts of Cambridge.”

If one good thing can come out of the arrest, it is that upper class educated African Americans will realize that racial profiling is problem that affects us all. Educated affluent African Americans, who have access to lawyers and the media that most working class African Americans do not, will hopefully lead the fight against racial profiling of all African American men, not just Harvard Professors. The arrest has prompted Gates to take on the problem of racial profiling. Skip Gates has the bully pulpit to expose racial profiling and police harassment and his arrest has prompted him to use it.

“There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them, This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it.” Gates said in an interview with the Washington Post.

The arrest has prompted Skip Gates to start a PBS documentary on racial profiling. Hopefully this will give voices not only to the upper class African Americans who are profiled in there own neighborhoods, despite their nice cars, nice clothes and money but regular working class African Americans who are forced to show their ID’s and  are searched, and arrested on trivial charges every day.

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