There are only a handful of widely, cross-culturally known black intellectuals in this country-Maya Angelou, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Julianne Malveaux, and maybe a few others. Then there's Dr. Henry Louis Gates (Harvard), named one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential People in America" in 1997. Second only perhaps to John Hope Franklin in terms of transformative impact on the field of American History, expanding it to include persons of African decent, Gates has been for some time the foremost-not number two, number one-scholar in African and African-American studies in this country. Gates holds one of only 20 "distinguished professor" positions at Harvard; he also serves as director of the university's W. E. B. DuBois Center. His multiple PBS and other documentaries have informed us, indicted us, and improved our sense of the history and the personhood of all people. He is a singular figure in many respects, embracing innovative technologies as a means by which to excavate a people's history. Still, following Gates' recent arrest for "disorderly conduct," after being accused of breaking into his own home located near Harvard University's campus, I am left to wonder. How much acclaim does a Negro need to have in order to earn some of those "inalienable rights" upon which America was founded?
The question itself indicts, I know. And one could easily be buffeted down the path of defense and rationalization. One might be loath to question the intent of the police officer, the authority, who interacted with Dr. Gates the afternoon of July 16. Assuming the veracity of the officer's recollection, one might rather be inclined to question, "Why would Mr. Gates ever resist the officer's directives, first to step outside the home, and later, to produce evidence of his right to be in the home?" One's own experience with law enforcement may lead one to assume that no officer would be inclined to harass any citizen without probable cause. One might speculate, " Mr. Gates must have said something that was off-putting to the officer."
One may even posit that the officer had a sworn duty to pursue the matter to his full satisfaction once he had been dispatched to the scene, and all Mr. Gates had to do was satisfy the officer's inquiry. And there are those who will say that Mr. Gates is always interjecting race into situations where race is not a factor, ignoring issues of public safety and authority. One could go on ad infinitum in critique and criticism of Gates along these lines, but in light of who the victim of discrimination is and the fact that this is not an isolated incident, such knee-jerk opposition to Dr. Gates is baseless.
The officer's only responsibility in the situation was to ascertain Mr. Gates' right to be on the property. Once Mr. Gates had opened the door in response to the officer's knock, there was only one question pertinent in meeting that responsibility: "May I please see your driver's license?" That was it. But that was neither where the officer began nor ended, which leads me to wonder: What level of identification was sufficient to elevate Mr. Gates above the presumption of suspicion? Wasn't Gates' own word at least as credible as an informant too unobservant to recognize her own neighbor returning home in broad daylight?
If Gates' answering the door didn't satisfy the officer, if his being on the house phone didn't clue the officer in (these are not things burglars do), if the gray hair and cane didn't suggest the informant may have been mistaken, if the driver's license and faculty ID didn't exonerate, what would have sufficed?
When informed of the professor's relationship to the university, the office radioed for assistance from the campus police. What was the expectation? Why would a random campus cop have had any more personal knowledge of the professor, short of their involvement in a previous incident together? Shy of the off chance the campus cop dispatched knew Gates by name, wouldn't she also have been left to trust the same documentation Gates had shown the first officer? What more could the second officer have done by way of verification that would not have furthered the presumption of guilt? Or was it that the first officer needed someone of a specific credibility to vouch for Gates?
When considering the preponderance of evidence that the officer chose to disregard, it's hard to maintain that by the end of his encounter with Dr. Gates the officer's only intent was to verify identity. I am persuaded that, despite the initial probable cause, this became the story of an officer who resented the lack of deference shown and took it upon himself to correct the balance of power.
With all due deference to the election of President Barack Obama (and Soledad O'Brien), this is Black in America too. And renown doesn't matter. Notwithstanding, the thing about inalienable rights is that they can't be earned. So by the same token, under the American system of laws, they cannot be lost.
Now this may give Dr. Gates just claim against the Cambridge police department. However, in my humble opinion, he would do best not to press that claim. Personal grievances aside, I'm not sure it's best for the country to make this particular incident the poster child for racial profiling. Although the incident has definite racial overtones and the police officer's actions clearly demonstrate discrimination to me, I'm still not certain Sgt. Crowley, the officer in the situation, engaged in racial discrimination. And to hang so much on a case that could be reasoned a multiplicity of ways seems to set us back, not move us forward.
I've always believed that the wonderfully precocious notion of "post-racial" denotes a willingness to live in hope beyond what we can see. This is not easy, particularly when incidents like this-that are far from simple misunderstandings-stir the cynic in us to retreat to familiar positions of opposition and loyalty.
Whereas the veracity of Dr. Gates' recollection makes intuitive sense to anyone with a window into my experience, I realize it does not make sense universally. And if making sense of things matters, Dr. Gates would do well to hire someone to help tell the story in a way accessible to as wide an audience as possible. As unjust as it is, Dr. Gates cannot express the indignation I feel and find resonance with the majority of Americans; neither can he maintain a defiant position of absolute innocence. Although these may both be honest expressions of how Gates has experienced this injustice, many-dare I say most-Americans will not grant him the grace of that kind of cathartic vent.
If Gates wants to further the cause of hope, he will have to navigate the murky waters of pleading his case with the same finesse with which President Obama deals with issues of race, religion, national origin, and all the other xenophobic concerns of his American constituency. Sadly, there is no amount of acclaim, or presumption of innocence, or contribution to the public good that guarantees respect for the "inalienable rights" of all who, in the words of the poet Langston Hughes, "too sing America." But that does not mean we can't live in hope.
Melvin Bray (melvinbray.com) is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, purveyor of sustainability, and believer in possibilities. He is a contributing author to the recent compilation Audacity of Faith: Christian Leaders Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama (Judson Press) and an active participant in the Emergent Village.