Black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Sunday joked about his arrest by a white police officer, but also described receiving death threats and dreaming about being arrested at the White House.
In his first public appearance since sharing a beer at the White House on Thursday with the officer and President Barack Obama, Gates said the national debate over racial profiling sparked by his arrest shows that issues of class and race still run “profoundly deep” in the United States.
“They have not been resolved at all,” he said, speaking to a crowd of more than 150 who came to see him at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival.
Gates was mostly light-hearted during his speech and even poked fun at himself after a man in the crowd told him he admired his sense of humor.
“I should have been funnier in the kitchen of my house on July 16,” he said.
But Gates also described how the incident and the subsequent national debate affected him personally. He said he had to shut down his public e-mail and change his cell phone number after receiving numerous death and bomb threats, including one that read, “You should die; you’re a racist.”
Gates was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge at his Cambridge home after police responded to a 911 call about a possible burglary.
The officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, said Gates became belligerent and called him a racist after he asked for identification. Gates accused police of racial profiling and called Crowley a “rogue cop.”
The charge was dropped.
Obama stepped into the fray during a White House news conference when he said Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.” He later said he should have chosen his words more carefully and invited the two men to the White House for a beer.
Gates said that the night before he went to the White House, he dreamed about getting arrested there.
When the two first came face to face in the White House, Gates said that both he and his family and Crowley and his family “looked like a deer caught in headlights.”
He said Crowley looked “so relieved” when he shook his hand, and the two were able to find humor in the media frenzy unleashed by his arrest.
Gates said he and Crowley discussed meeting again privately — either going to lunch or taking in a Boston Red Sox or Celtics game — or having their two families go out to dinner together.
“I offered to get his kids into Harvard if he doesn’t arrest me again,” he said, drawing loud laughter from the audience.
Gates appeared at the festival to promote his 2009 book, “In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past.” The book traces the family trees of black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock.
When questioned by reporters after his speech, Gates would not comment on whether he still believes race played a role in his arrest.
He said he wants to produce a documentary from both the perspective of police and people who have been victims of racial profiling so “Americans can understand that you can have two equally valid perceptions of the same event.”
“Racial profiling is a huge problem in this country and a serious problem, and I intend to devote my resources to fighting it,” he said.
Gates called what happened to him “small potatoes,” and said he is more concerned about people who don’t have Harvard lawyers to represent them.
“At the same time, it’s important that all of us are keenly and acutely sensitive to all the police do for the good of the community,” he said.