The Crescent Report

July 22, 2009

Lessons from the Color Line Even ‘Famous’ Black Men Can Be Thrown Up Against the Wall

Filed under: civil-rights, Racism — Tags: — Imam Mahdi Bray @ 11:31 am

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey

For those who may not otherwise be aware, Harvard University Professor Henry “Skip” Louis Gates, Jr., is one of America’s most preeminent scholars and public intellectuals, in addition to being a prolific writer, researcher, and producer of major documentaries for American public television.

Professor Gates is also a Black man; and apparently, that was the most salient part of his identity when it came to a confrontation with Cambridge, Massachusetts police officers earlier this week.

It seems that Professor Gates, on returning from a trip to China, was attempting to un-jam his front door with the help of a driver hired to drive him in from the airport, and while doing so, the local police department received a report that “unidentified” black men had been seen attempting to break into the Gates residence.

When officers arrived on the scene to investigate, Gates, in producing his University identification also happened to ask, as was his right, for the badge numbers of the officers confronting him.

The officers reportedly refused to identify themselves, a disagreement followed, and Professor Gates was arrested – somewhat roughly – and charged with the offense of disorderly conduct.

The charge(s) against Professor Gates were subsequently dropped, and the Cambridge Police department issued a statement calling the incident “regrettable”.

However, as shocking as this revelation might be to many who subscribe to the notion of some “post-racial” American mythology, this sort of police behavior is all too common when it comes to black men in America.

When the police arrived at Gates’ residence, they did not see a Yale Summa Cum laude graduate, or a leading global literary scholar, or a person with an academic pedigree that is, quite literally, astounding; what they saw was a black man – or, in more vulgar terms, a ‘nigger’ – and his request for officer identification seemed to go beyond the apparent boundaries of what black men seemingly have a right to demand from the public servants supported by the U.S. tax dollars of black men.

It did not matter that “Skip” Gates, a man who happens to be on the smaller side in physical stature, walks with the aid of a cane, and who’s citizenship and character did not come into question; the actions of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police officers were framed, from what evidence I could gather, by their perceptions (or misperceptions) on the issue of race.

Of course, it is to be noted that not all black men are subjected to false arrest, and not all white police officers are vindictively racist in the execution of their professional responsibilities; but for many black men the scenario is far from uncommon.

The Gates incident serves as a reminder that the suspicions about police misconduct common among African-Americans are based on thousands of such sad occurrences, some of which end in more tragic events that the one that happens to be the subject of this essay.

Every now and then, something happens to remind us about the deep undercurrents of racial division that persist in American society; undercurrents that have not disappeared simply because an African-American man has been elected to serve in the highest elected seat in the nation as President of the United States.

Although Professor Gates has been released from his brief confinement in a Cambridge jail, and the incident is now closed, in the minds of the most highly educated and elite members of the African-American community in America, the racial division and inequality of treatment by law enforcement officials and the justice system in general, remain all too real.

Sadly, “trying to enter your house while black” can be added together with “flying while Muslim” to the list potentially perilous activities in this American democracy that we call home.



  1. While I am certain that there was a racial component in the incident, I have had the same problem with Cambridge cops even though I am white.

    Asking for an officers identification in Cambridge is almost always good for a quick trip to the police station when dealing with either Cambridge city cops or Harvard cops, who are deputized by the city if I am not mistaken.

    I was able to talk my way out of an arrest, but I have worked over a lot of the last 15 years as a salesman. If I were still on the MIT faculty, I would probably have had more difficulty with the Cambridge police.

    The USA has a really sick police culture, which seems to make it easy for cops (and sometimes FBI officers) to think they can get away with anything despite the laws and regulations.

    This attitude is probably the root of the subversion of the Boston FBI office by the Winter Hill gang, and I have to admit — even if it is racist to say so —

    1. that African American cops generally are not as power crazed as the white cops and

    2. that I always prefer to deal with a black officer than a white cop.

    I consulted with a retired DA about the Chuck Turner sting, and he mentioned in passing that Boston-area cops really don’t understand how much their misbehavior has made them objects of scorn and distrust. Nowadays a large part of a Boston-are prosecutor’s job involves overcoming hardly unreasonable anti-cop feelings on the part of local juries.

    Comment by Joachim Martillo — July 23, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  2. this is a despicable curse in police internationally,each and everyone,wherever they are ought to liberate themselves from this curse when they fall victim to it,by resigning publicly,or publicly apologize,seeing that we are indeed our brother`s keeper,we must stand up face the music,not after the deed ,hide behind establishment like babies,waiting for the next chance to act even more irresponsibly,inevitably bringing blame on all other innocent truly dedicated brothers and sisters,blessings,Love/Forgiveness is key.

    Comment by O`Neil Ramsay — July 26, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  3. Assalamu Alaikum, to all.
    Recently in Champaign-Urbana Illinois a 15 year old unarmed Black youth was killed by local police while entering his own house through the window. Obviously unlike Professor Gates this young man named Kiwane Carrington is dead due to the resulf of trying to enter his own house. However, the community of Champaigne-Urbana is in the process of trying to deal with this injustice. M.A.S. has been apart of this process along with other local activist and religious figures. This type of police action is bussiness as usual along with racial profiling, incarciration of young Black men with long prison terms. The statistics can show that African-American men are the largest group tpo be incarcirated as well as with the longest prison sentences. In this community through our local M.A.S. efforts will continue to speak out about these injustices. Professor Gates should be glad that he was not poor, Black, and unknown.
    Sister Patsy

    Comment by sister patsy — December 7, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

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