The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 23 2009 3:31 PM

The Depressing Cycle of Racial Accusation

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. is about neither racial profiling nor playing the race card.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chair of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.

As many of us learned early this week, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the eminent Harvard scholar of African-American culture, was arrested a week ago outside his own home in Cambridge, Mass. Gates had returned home after an overseas trip and found his front door was jammed. He forced it open with the help of his driver. One of his neighbors saw the men forcing the door and called the police to report a burglary. When the police arrived and demanded that Gates come outside (or "asked" depending on which account of events you believe), Gates refused and a confrontation ensued, which ended in Gates being placed under arrest for disorderly conduct.

Reactions were swift and predictable: For liberal civil rights activists, Gates was a victim of racial profiling. For law-and-order conservatives, Gates is a pampered black elitist who played the race card against a hardworking cop who was just trying to do his job (and said today that he won't apologize, as Gates has asked). Neither of these reactions offers much insight into Gates' arrest or how we can prevent similar episodes in the future. Instead, both play into the all-too-familiar pattern of every racial scandal in recent memory: a depressing cycle of racial accusation, denial, and recrimination, in which the arguments all have been made many times before, and everyone knows which side they're on before even hearing the facts.

Last night even the president weighed in, saying police acted "stupidly" by arresting Gates. Strong words, but Obama in his typically diplomatic style was careful to say he couldn't tell what role race played in the incident. The president got it right: There's no plausible justification for the arrest. It was worse than stupid—it was abusive. And that raises the suspicion that it was racially motivated. But there's really no evidence that the police officer involved was a racist rather than a bully with a badge or a decent cop who made a bad call in the heat of the moment.

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Let's take the charge of racial profiling first. Strictly speaking, there was no profiling here: Sgt. James Crowley did not assume that professor Gates was a burglar because he fit some generic stereotype of a black criminal; he was responding to a 911 call. But racial profiling has become a sort of catchall term: If the police consider race in any way, it's profiling. The claim here is that once the police arrived, they treated Gates differently than they would have treated a white person in the same situation. It's clear that Sgt. Crowley, who arrived at Gates' home last Thursday, treated Gates as a suspect: He demanded that Gates step outside, and when Gates said he lived there, the officer demanded identification.

Was this racist? The witness who called 911 said that two black men were breaking into the house, so it wasn't outrageous for Crowley to suspect that the black man he saw inside the house had just broken in. If there was racial profiling, it began with the neighbor who described the burglary suspects in terms of race (or the 911 operator who probably prompted her to do so). But that's a normal part of a suspect description: Like sex, height, and weight, race is a convenient way to identify a person. Asking police to ignore race in a description of a specific suspect takes colorblindness way too far.

And even racial profiling in the sense of using race as a part of a generic composite of a typical criminal isn't necessarily racist. It's a tragic fact that blacks as a group commit a disproportionate number of certain types of crime. The trouble is that racial profiling—even if it's based on accurate generalizations—imposes a disproportionate share of the costs of law enforcement on innocent blacks, like professor Gates. Let's face it: It's hard to imagine that police would have presumed that a middle-aged white man who walks with a cane was a burglar.

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