The PC Mind

What Do You Call a Black Man with a Ph.D.?
The Skip Gates arrest shows
how little some features of the national racial landscape
have changed over time.

By Lawrence Bobo
TheRoot.com, 2009-07-21

[A slightly different version of this
appeared in the Op-Ed page of the (printed) Washington Post on 2009-07-22.
That version does not appear to be on their web site.

In that version (the printed version), the headline and subtitle are

At Home While Black
Henry Gates’s Run-In With ‘Post-Racial America’.


Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America.

I say this because my best friend, a well-known, middle-aged, affluent, black man, was arrested on his own front porch [1] after showing his identification to a white police officer who was responding to a burglary call. Though the officer quickly determined that my friend was the rightful resident of the house and knew by then that there was no burglary in progress, he decided to place my friend in handcuffs, put him in the back of a police cruiser and have him fingerprinted and fully “processed,” at our local police station.

This did not happen at night. It happened in the middle of the day. It did not happen to a previously unknown urban black male. It happened to internationally known, 58-year-old Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. I am writing about this event because it is an outrage, because I want others to know that it is an outrage, and because, even now, I have not fully processed the meaning of it.

Here’s what I understand to have happened: The officer in my friend’s case was really motivated by a simmering cauldron of anger that my friend had not immediately complied with his initial command to step out of the house. In hindsight, that was the right thing to do since I think my friend could have been physically injured by this police officer (if not worse) had he, in fact, stepped out of his home before showing his ID. Black Americans recall all too well that Amadou Diallo reached for his identification in a public space when confronted by police and, 42 gun shots later, became the textbook case of deadly race-infected police bias.

Skip is one of the most readily recognized black men in America and the most broadly influential black scholar of this generation. And yes, in the liberal, politically correct cocoon of “the people’s Republic of Cambridge,” a famous, wealthy and important black man was arrested on his front porch. The ultimate charge? “Disorderly conduct.” Whatever that means.

Even before the charge were dropped Tuesday, I knew in my bones that this officer was wrong. I knew in my bones that this situation was about the level of deference from a black male that a white cop expects. I say this even though I did not see the events themselves unfold. What I do know with certainty is that the officer, even by his own written report, understood that he was dealing with a lawful resident of the house when he made the arrest. That same report makes it clear that at the time of the arrest, the officer was no longer concerned about the report of a “burglary in progress” involving “two black males.” No, by this point we’re talking about something else entirely.

Maybe this “situation” had something to do with Harvard University and social class. It is possible that one element of what happened here involved a policeman with working-class roots who faced an opportunity to “level the playing field” with a famous and successful Harvard professor. But even if class mattered, it did so mostly because of how, in this situation, it was bound up with race.

Imagine the scenario. An influential man, in his own home, is ordered to step outside by a policeman. Naturally and without disrespect he asks “Why?” or perhaps “Who are you?” The officer says words to the effect, “I’m responding to a burglary report. Step outside now!”

To which, our confident man, in his own home, says, “No. This is my house. I live here. I work for the university, and the university manages this property.” The response prompts the officer to demand identification. “Fine,” our resident says, and he pulls out two forms of identification from his wallet.

The officer now knows with high certainty that he is dealing with the legitimate resident of the home. Does he ask, “Is everything alright, sir? We had a report of a burglary.” No, he does not. Does he say, “I’m sorry, sir, if I frightened you before. We had a report of a burglary, and all they said was ‘two black men at this address.’ You can understand my concern when I first got to the house?”

No, he didn’t do that either. He also could have disengaged by walking away. But no, he didn’t do that either.

This officer continued to insist that my friend step outside. By now, it is clear to my friend that the officer has, well, “an attitude problem.” So, as I suspect would happen with any influential, successful person, in their own home, who has provided authoritative identification to a policeman would do in this situation: My friend says, “I want your name and badge number.” The cop says nothing sensible in response but continues to wait at the door.

The request for the officer’s name and badge number is pressed again. No response. Social scientists have plenty of hard data showing that African Americans, across the social-class spectrum, are deeply distrustful of the police. The best research suggests that this perception has substantial roots in direct personal encounters with police that individuals felt were discriminatory or motivated by racism. But this perception of bias also rests on a shared collective knowledge of a history of discriminatory treatment of blacks by police and of social policies with built-in forms of racial bias (i.e., stiffer sentences for use of crack versus powder cocaine).

In the age of Obama, however, with all the talk of post-racial comity, you might have thought what happened to Skip Gates was an impossibility. Even the deepest race cynic—picture comedian Dave Chappelle as “Conspiracy Brother” from the movie Undercover Brother [2]—couldn’t predict such an event. But, I will say that when I moved into the same affluent area as Gates, I wondered whether someone might mistakenly report me, a black man, for breaking into my own house in a largely white neighborhood and what I would have to do to prove that the house actually belonged to me if the police showed up at the door.

I remember joking with my wife that maybe I should keep a copy of the mortgage papers and deed in the front foyer, just in case. I do now. And it is no longer a joke.

There is no way to completely erase and undo what has been done. And there is, indeed, a larger lesson here about the problem of racial bias and misuse of discretion by police that still, all too often, works against blacks, especially poor blacks. If Skip Gates can be arrested on his front porch and end up in handcuffs in a police cruiser then, sadly, there, but for the grace of God, goes every other black man in America. That is one sad statement, and it should also be enough to end all this post-racial hogwash.

Maybe events will prove my cynicism and anger unwarranted. Perhaps the officer involved will be fully held to account for his actions. Perhaps Gates will hear the apology he so richly deserves to hear. Perhaps a review of training, policy and practice by police in my fair city and many others will take place and move us closer to a day of bias-free policing. If you’re inclined to believe all that will happen, then I’ve got a shiny, new, post-racial narrative I’d be happy to sell.

Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.


The mode of thought and activity
that is conventionally labeled “political correctness”
contains several laws and tactics.
Among those are:
  • The “law”:
    In a dispute over facts
    between the politically incorrect and the politically correct,
    the politically incorrect {whites/men/gentiles}
    lie, or are delusional, or motivated by irrational hatred,
    the politically correct
    always tell the truth, have accurate recollections,
    and have nothing but pure motives (e.g.).

  • The tactic of selective memory (e.g.)

Both of these are illustrated in 2009-07-27-Gates-NYT-Warner-Judith below.

A Lot Said, and Unsaid, About Race
by Judith Warner
New York Times Op-Ed, 2009-07-27

Perhaps the most telling moment
in Sgt. James Crowley’s account of
his now epoch-defining arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
occurs about three-quarters of the way through the report
that the officer subsequently filed with the Cambridge Police Department

In his story of their verbal tussle,
Crowley describes himself as overwhelmed by the noise in Gates’s kitchen,
as the black professor loudly accused the white cop of racial profiling.
Seeing that Gates could not be persuaded to use an inside voice,
Crowley retreated to the street,
inviting Gates to join him outdoors.

“Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,”
Gates allegedly told him.

Gates denied referring to Crowley’s mama.
“The idea that I would, in a vulnerable position
talk about the man’s mother is absurd,”
he told Gayle King of Sirius radio.
“I don’t talk about people’s mothers …
You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop,
let alone with a white police officer …
I think they did some historical research,
and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’ ”

I think there’s more to it than that.
I think it’s very likely that
Crowley really does believe he heard the insult to his mother.

And that’s because Gates wasn’t the only one in that house, on that day,
whose thoughts were traveling well-worn grooves chiseled by race.
Both men were, consciously or not,
following scripts in their heads,
stories of vulnerability and grievance
much more meaningful than their actual exchange.

[This illustrates a “law” of political correctness asserted above.
Judith Warner has pointed out that
the African-American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and
the Cambridge, MA Police Sergeant James Crowley
have different recollections of whether a specific utterance (“Ya … mama …”)
was said by Professor Gates.

Now, without a shred of evidence to back up her reasoning,
she implies that the statement only has existence in Crowley’s head,
rather than having been actually spoken by Gates on that day.
How on earth can Warner imply that
the (black) Harvard professor’s recollection was accurate
and the (white) police sergeant’s not?
Is this not a clear instance of the “law” asserted above?]


Had Gates been a white man,
approached in his home and abruptly told to step outside,
he might well have bristled at the cold officiousness of the officer’s tone,
but he probably wouldn’t have thought, or known,
that to leave the haven of his house
would expose him to the possibility of sudden arrest.

Had he been white,
a request for ID would probably not have sounded like an insult,
or worse, a potential danger.
It would probably not have stirred up
memories of black men like Amadou Diallo,
the Guinean immigrant who in 1999 was killed by police in the Bronx
as he reached for his wallet.
He very likely would not have seen
what Gates was sure he saw in Crowley’s face,
as the cop scanned the professor’s Harvard ID,
trying to take in the fact that the man before him was not an intruder.
“He’s trying to unpack a narrative …
He was so sure that he had a catch,”
Gates recalled to King.
“That is when everything turned.”

We don’t know precisely what was going through Crowley’s mind.
But his report and later statements seem to attest to
a greatly outsized sense of vulnerability and victimization.

Crowley demanded that the small, slight, cane-carrying professor come outside,
he said,
because he feared not living to make it home to his wife and children.

[Note the clear use of selective memory here.

In paragraph 10 Warner cited the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo
as supposed justification for fear Professor Gates might have had
at a request to show his ID.
But that ignores a number of significant differences between
Diallo’s situation and Gates’s.

On the other hand, in paragraphs 11 and 12 Warner all but mocks
(“greatly outsized sense of vulnerability”)
any fear that Crowley might have had about
entering into potentially dangerous situations.
But if black Americans can constantly be reminded of the death of Diallo,
do not white policeman have at least equal justification to be concerned about
a repeat of the 2009 Oakland police killings,
two of which occurred precisely when
white police officers entered a black-occupied apartment
and were surprised by a sneak attack?

Is this not a clear instance of selective memory,
arguing that blacks must fear police
while white police need not fear blacks?

As to how Sergeant Crowley actually phrased his concerns, see this.]

A remark by Gates — “That’s none of your business” —
appeared to sting him to the quick.
And then there was that matter of his mama.
“Speaking about my mother,”
he said sadly to a sympathetic local pair of radio talk show hosts,
“it’s just beyond words.”

In Crowley’s excessive ultimate reaction to Gates’s angry accusations,
I was reminded of
the story candidate Obama told in his race speech in Philadelphia last year,
when he talked of beleaguered working- and middle-class white Americans
who don’t “feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race”
and who, when held accountable for institutional racism,
respond with a long-nursed “resentment.”

Obama warned that for America to move forward,
both blacks and whites need to listen to each other’s narratives,
and stop reflexively dismissing them either as paranoia or simple prejudice.

The “He said/He said” of Ware Street in Cambridge
might be just the place to start.


Two terrible tragedies occurred in America:
Somehow, though,
the killing of Diallo gets cited incessantly
to justify or explain black fear of police,
while the slaying of the four Oakland police officers
seems to have almost gone down the memory hole,
in terms of attention in the elite media.

For an example of this selective memory,
see 2009-07-27-Gates-NYT-Warner-Judith-12-selective-memory.

Note added later:
Note also the brutal assassination of four white police officers in Lakewood, WA by a black man.



Washington Post Editorial, 2010-01-31

THERE WERE dozens of witnesses on Nov. 13
when a Fairfax County[, Virgina]
police officer
shot an unarmed, mentally ill driver, David A. Masters,
in broad daylight amid heavy traffic in the Huntington area.
But none of the witnesses --
not the other drivers nearby, nor any bystanders,
nor two other police officers who had approached the man’s vehicle --
saw what the shooting officer says that he saw,
which was Mr. Masters reaching for what the officer feared was a weapon.
That, said the officer, prompted him to open fire,
killing Mr. Masters, a 52-year-old former Green Beret with bipolar disorder
and a tendency toward bizarre behavior.

In the event, Mr. Masters,
though he may have gestured oddly and acted erratically, had no weapon.
His apparent crime, which prompted the police response?
Taking some flowers from a planter.


[A photo of Mr. Masters:

It sounds as if, based on what the Post describes,
that a terrible mistake was made.

But sometimes mistakes are made.
In this case, a white man was fatally shot,
in circumstances
(broad daylight, only one officer saw a supposedly threatening move)
that, to my eye,
make this incident more problematical than
the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999.

The shooting of Mr. Diallo seems to be brought up
whenever the black community wishes to claim that police, at least some of them,
are racist,
and that blacks are unfairly targeted and
warranted in fearing unjustified shooting from them—
a recent case in point was in the Henry Louis Gates affair in Cambridge,
where Gates used the Diallo shooting to justify, in his mind,
his refusal to follow the orders of a white policeman.

I wonder if those who argue that the police are biased with respect to blacks
are aware of, or care about,
the fact that both blacks and whites have been killed
in these instant-reaction situations,
not to mention the cases, just in 2009 [Oakland CA, Lakewood WA], of
cold-blooded, premeditated murder of white police officers by blacks
which can only inspire, in a rational mind, some degree of fear by whites of blacks.]