Past Event

Arresting Race, Theorizing Class: The Case of Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation’s most preeminent scholars of African-American history and director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was arrested at his Cambridge home in mid-July after returning from a trip to China. Police were called to the scene after neighbors saw him force his way through the front door because it was jammed. Upon their arrival, Gates showed the arresting police two forms of identification: his driver’s license and his Harvard ID; however, Gates was still arrested on the spot. This arrest and the aftermath are sparking conversations about racial profiling and the politics of class in society.

Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 25 years, said ”We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if Professor Gates was white. It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened.” President Obama weighed in as well, saying the police officers responded stupidly to the incident, which angered many who believe the police were simply doing their job.

Stanley Fish, a long-time friend of Gates and editorialist for The New York Times, paralleled the arrest with the outcry over Obama’s initial response. He writes, "Gates and Obama are not only friends; they are in the same position, suspected of occupying a majestic residence under false pretenses. And Obama is a double offender. Not only is he guilty of being Housed While Black; he is the first in American history guilty of being P.W.B., President While Black."

While issues of racial profiling are nothing new, many are thinking about the class implications of such an arrest. They wonder where the outrage is when numbers of African-American men devoid of Gates professional stature deal with racial profiling on a daily basis. A Phantom Negro, who blogs for writes: "The Ivy League Effect, when it’s potent, wouldn’t allow otherwise. It made Gates forget that, no matter what, even when you’re right, you don’t talk s*** to the police. And that’s not a matter of manhood or pride; it’s a question of survival. Why? Because you’re black before you’re a Harvard professor. Because, in an extreme case, you can’t tell your side of the story if you get shot reaching for your ID."

For their part, Cambridge police remain staunch in their position that they responded correctly and refuse to apologize. The arresting officer Sergeant James Crowley in recounting the incident said "There was a lot of yelling, there was references to my mother, something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should be grateful that you’re there investigating a report of a crime in progress let alone a Harvard University professor."

Many see the incident as incredibly problematic conjuring up images of the 1990s, when racial profiling regularly made headlines with the case of Rodney King. They hope this incident will be a catalyst for future conversations on race and class. Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard said, "It’s just deeply disappointing but also a pointed reminder that there are serious problems that we have to wrestle with."

Do you think the police officers response was appropriate? What do you make of the class implications in such an arrest? What do you think are the root causes of profiling? What kind of effect do you think racial profiling has on those being profiled, and society at large? What is the appropriate balance between civil rights and public safety? How does this compare to the profiling of people from other racial backgrounds?

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