Henry Louis Gates Jr, a distinguished professor at Harvard University, was arrested at his home after a neighbor saw him forcing open his back door and called the police. According to news reports, the neighbor thought that someone was breaking into Gates’ house.
If that were the whole story, it would be a funny headline: “College Professor Arrested for Breaking Into Own Home.” But that isn’t the whole story, because Gates is black.
So the story that’s presented to us now is that in a grave injustice, a “mild-mannered, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane,” “one of the most recognizable African-Americans in the country” has been “pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge.”
But let’s think this through.
Did the police officers do something wrong by showing up? How would Gates feel if someone had reported a break-in at his house and the police hadn’t shown up? The fact is, Gates was breaking into the house. His story is that upon returning home from a trip overseas he found his door obstructed, and he had to force it open. So whoever called the police evidently thought that a break-in was in progress. In an act of neighborly kindness they called the police in to protect Gates’ property.
Was Gates arrested simply for being black in his own home, as has been asserted? No, he was arrested for and initially charged with disorderly conduct, or “loud and tumultuous behavior.” The officer’s report of the arrest states that when he asked Gates to show identification, Gates replied “No I will not.” Then he demanded the officer’s name and badge number three times, and when the officer tried to explain that he was investigating a report of a break-in, Gates “opened the front door and exclaimed, ‘Why, because I’m a black man in America?’”
Should the arresting officer have known who Gates was? It shouldn’t have mattered. In this country we still believe that no one is bigger than the law. Nevertheless, Gates’ supporters ask us to consider his fame. It has been said that he is “one of the most recognizable African Americans in the country,” (see CNN) but is he really? Are there not at least 500 professional athletes, former athletes, entertainers, businesspeople, news presenters, and other private citizens who are more recognizable? There certainly are that many, and probably more.
Finally, we should ask ourselves what Gates could have done differently to create a better outcome. All indications are that Gates could have defused the entire situation by cooperating with the public servant who showed up at his front door that day, smiling and saying, “Thank you so much for coming out to protect my property, but it’s okay. I live here. See, here’s my drivers’ license.”
Unfortunately, as this episode has shown, some Americans aren’t ready for a post-racial society.