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Arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: What do they call a Black man with a PhD?

by Alan Goodman/
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. is a prominent professor at Harvard University. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities—which, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities is “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” In 1997, he was named one of TIME’s 25 most influential Americans.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is also a Black man in America. And on July 16, 2009, the Cambridge, Massachusetts police made a statement about what that means.

On that day, Gates arrived home from a trip to China, where he was filming a PBS documentary. He had difficulty opening the front door of his home, so he entered his home through the back door using his key. After entering his home, Gates turned off his alarm, and with the help of his driver, was able to get the front door open.

Shortly after entering his home, he was confronted by a police officer who came into his house, demanded (and got) proof that this was in fact Professor Gates’ home. And then, after verifying that this was, in fact, his home, the police arrested Gates, charged him with “disorderly conduct” and took him away to jail in handcuffs where he was held for several hours.

Professor Gates was able to get word of his arrest to his colleagues and his attorney, and after their intervention he was released from jail later that day, and later charges were dropped.

The Gates Affair has connected far and wide among African-Americans, and everyone who has a sense of what it means to be Black in America. And, it has set off a racist backlash among those who are infuriated that Professor Gates refused to bow and scrape to the racist cop who harassed him in his own home, and that Barack Obama called the arrest “stupid.” And through this, it has opened, again, the question of the subjugation of Black people in America.
I. The Arrest

Mainstream news reports claim that there are conflicting accounts of what happened with the arrest of Professor Gates. That Barack Obama jumped to criticize the police before the “whole story” came out. Not true. Gates’ account of his arrest is not only credible, consistent, and backed up by facts, it is not, in any essential way, contradicted by police reports of the arrest.

In an interview at the Root (, Professor Gates described returning from China, and the events that led to his arrest:

“I just finished making my new documentary series for PBS called ‘Faces of America.’ It was a glorious week in Shanghai and Ningbo and Beijing, and on my trip, I took my daughter along. After we finished working in Ningbo we went to Beijing and had three glorious days as tourists. It was great fun.

“We flew back on a direct flight from Beijing to Newark. We arrived on Wednesday, and on Thursday I flew back to Cambridge. I was using my regular driver and my regular car service. And went to my home arriving at about 12:30 in the afternoon. My driver and I carried several bags up to the porch, and we fiddled with the door and it was jammed. I thought, well, maybe the door’s latched. So I walked back to the kitchen porch, unlocked the door and came into the house. And I unlatched the door, but it was still jammed.

“My driver is a large black man. But from afar you and I would not have seen he was black. He has black hair and was dressed in a two-piece black suit, and I was dressed in a navy blue blazer with gray trousers and, you know, my shoes. And I love that the 911 report said that two big black men were trying to break in with backpacks on. Now that is the worst racial profiling I’ve ever heard of in my life. (Laughs.) I’m not exactly a big black man. I thought that was hilarious when I found that out, which was yesterday.”

A statement issued on Gates’ behalf by his attorney, friend, and colleague, Charles Ogletree, details what happened next: “Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door and requested that it be repaired immediately.”

And, that statement continues, “As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.

“Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates. As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officer’s colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification, said to him, ‘Thank you for accommodating my earlier request,’ and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.”

On all the essentials, with the exception of whether the cop refused to identify himself, the police report does not contradict Gates’ account. The Cambridge police report, by the arresting officer—James Crowley—who identifies himself as working for “the Administration Section” of the Cambridge Police Department, makes clear that Gates was arrested at a point when there was no question in the officer’s mind that this was Gates’ home, and that he was not a burglar. Crowley states explicitly that Gates “did supply me with a Harvard University identification card.”

And when Gates provided that ID, did that then settle the matter? Did the officer then apologize for the false accusation and leave Professor Gates alone? No. After ascertaining that no crime had been committed, and that Gates was in his own home, the police report states that Crowley called for more police. His report continues, “Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.” In other words, after Crowley—by his own account—determined who Gates was, and that no crime was being committed, he called in more police.

Why? Crowley’s report does clearly state what constituted Gates’ supposed crime in the eyes of the system: “As I descended the stairs to the sidewalk, Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him. Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence [emphasis added—Revolution] as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly.” The police report also says Gates was arrested because his actions “served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.” Then, according to the police report, when Gates “ignored [Crowley’s] warning…to calm down,” he was handcuffed, initially refused access to a cane that he needs to walk, and arrested. (The arrest report is available at

When, again—exactly—did it become illegal, much less wrong, for a victim of racist police abuse to accuse a racist cop of racial bias?
II. Breaking the “Unspoken Code”

In his statement after the arrest, Henry Louis Gates said, “I’m deeply resolved to do and say the right things so that this cannot happen again.

“Of course, it will happen again, but…I want to do what I can so that every police officer will think twice before engaging in this kind of behavior.” [ellipsis in original]

That is a stand and spirit to defend. And one the powers-that-be find intolerable.

If you are Black in America, you object to police abuse only at risk of arrest…or worse. And this is true even if, and in some ways especially if, you are a successful Black person. This is a fact of life in the rural south, but it is also true in a liberal university town in Massachusetts.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a city of 100,000 people, adjoining Boston, dominated by Harvard University. In Cambridge, top Harvard professors are celebrities almost like movie stars are in Hollywood. Gates’ home is owned by Harvard University, and he has lived there for years. He is a widely recognized figure as he walks with his cane to and from work in Harvard Square. And Gates is not just like a movie star in Cambridge, he is a highly recognizable media personality in Cambridge and worldwide. His PBS documentaries, like “Wonders of the African World” or “Looking for Lincoln,” have been seen by millions. Gates hosted “Oprah’s Roots: An African American Lives Special,” and “African American Lives,” a PBS show about the family histories of prominent U.S. Black people.

In this light, consider the chain of events that led to Gates’ arrest. First, there was the Cambridge cop who arrived at Gates’ house to investigate a reported break-in. Then, there were additional police officers who showed up as “backup” on Professor Gates’ porch. And there were the supervisors in the Cambridge Police Department and the Harvard Police Department who dispatched more police to Gates’ house. Were all of them unaware of who Gates is? Not likely. But in any event, it was certainly true that by the time Professor Gates was arrested, it was clear to all not only that he was being arrested at his own home, but who he was. And that the arrest constituted a message to Gates, to Black people at large, and to society, that no Black man better get too “full of himself” or “uppity,” or think that because he is famous and respected, that he is immune to being abused and humiliated by police for no reason.

And Gates’ arrest is not the first or only incident of racial profiling against prominent African-American academics at Harvard. In 2004, Dr. Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 28 years, was stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers who accused him of being a robbery suspect, and threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification. “We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if Professor Gates was white,” Counter told AP. “It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened.”

In the wake of the arrest of Gates, the New York Times interviewed a number of Black professionals who both described being stopped or harassed by authorities themselves, and referenced what one diversity trainer from Atlanta called the “unwritten code” that Black men have to follow in any encounter with police. The Times article recounted advice from the Black diversity trainer: “Quiet politeness is Rule No. 1 in surviving an incident of racial profiling…. So is the frequent use of the word ‘sir.’”

Note the diversity trainer’s choice of words: “surviving” an incident of racial profiling. That’s not just a figure of speech. In October 1995 Jonny Gammage was driving a Jaguar that belonged to his cousin Ray Seals, defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, through Brentwood, a nearly all-white suburb of Pittsburgh. He was arrested, assaulted, and died of suffocation when the police stood and kneeled on his neck, shoulders, and waist as he lay handcuffed and shackled, face down on the pavement. His crime—being a young Black man in a late model sports car and putting on his brakes “in a suspicious manner.” Gammage was unarmed, and even the D.A.’s office found no reason why Gammage was stopped by the police that night.

The fact that speaking quietly to a cop, and frequently using the word “sir,” is the “unwritten code” for Black men, including those who have “made it” by the standards of this system, who want to survive an encounter with police, is a reflection of how deep, and how broad, the oppression of Black people is in this system.

Malcolm X once asked, “What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.?” And, he answered with bitter irony, “a nigger.”

The arrest, and public insulting of Professor Gates, the photos of this 58-year-old Black professor being hauled out of his home in handcuffs, was a statement that no matter how far you have “made it” in this system, you still live under the shadow of pervasive white supremacy. And you better not forget it.
III. Obama Speaks…

Six days after the arrest of Professor Gates, Barack Obama had this to say at a press conference held to promote his health insurance reform plan:

“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

Obama went on to frame his criticism of the police by saying “That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made.”

Obama’s comment set off a shitstorm. Never mind that it essentially covered up the systemic nature of racial profiling by contextualizing the criticism with lies about “incredible progress.” The president of the United States is not supposed to acknowledge racial profiling.

Obama’s statement that “African-Americans and Latinos” are “stopped by law enforcement disproportionately” is in fact, just a fact. A report by the Center for Constitutional Rights found that in 2006, more than 80 percent of those stopped and frisked by the NYPD were Black or Hispanic. Of those stopped, 45 percent of Blacks and Hispanics were frisked, compared with 29 percent of whites, even though white suspects were 70 percent more likely than Black suspects to have a weapon.

Before exploring the backlash, it is worth exploring why Obama made this statement in the first place. After all, the very day after Professor Gates was arrested, Obama addressed the national convention of the NAACP with a lecture about how whatever discrimination Black people might face (and Obama essentially trivialized that), in regard to their conditions, Black people have “no excuses.” And in case people didn’t get the point, he repeated, “No excuses.” [For a response to Obama’s speech, see excerpts of Carl Dix’s video online at]

Here’s the contradiction: The powers-that-be selected Barack Obama to be the imperialist system’s president, through their financial support of his campaign, and through calculated packaging in the media they control. They bet on that unprecedented move—installing a Black president—as a way to defuse widespread dissatisfaction and anger among people in times of endless war and economic crisis. They saw “Obama’s face,” as one ruling class pundit put it, as a weapon to employ in their global contention with Islamic fundamentalism. But they also saw the Obama presidency as a way to keep society together in the face of sharp divides over all kinds of questions ranging from the oppression of women, and Black and Latino people, to torture and theocratic fundamentalism. Whether that bet pays off is yet to be seen. Under Obama, the wars have dragged on and been escalated. Torture has been whitewashed and the torturers granted free passes. And conditions have worsened in the inner cities, hit hardest by the economic crisis. In the face of this, many people who had enthusiastically, even euphorically supported Obama’s candidacy have begun to question, and even speak out against what Obama has actually implemented.

A pivotal moment in that process was the dialog between Cornel West, a widely respected Black academic, author, and public intellectual—who was an early supporter of Obama, and Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Harlem on July 14, on the theme of “The Ascendancy of Obama...and the Continued Need for Resistance and Liberation.” The event featured unsparing exposure and opposition to what Obama is doing from both speakers—coming from very different political and philosophical positions.

That unsparing criticism was met with applause, not boos, by a packed house of 750 people in Harlem. The event—the combination of speakers, the makeup of the audience, and the mood in the crowd—could hardly have escaped the notice of those in Obama’s circle whose role it is to take the temperature of, and gauge the level of outrage and anger among sections of people, including influential Black intellectuals. [See centerspread article and online coverage at for an analysis of this event.]

The event in Harlem, and what it brought together and concentrates, provides a context for understanding Obama’s initial press conference comments. The point is not that there is a “good side” to Obama which can be “pushed on” to get him to “do the right thing.” But having Obama play the role substantial sections of the ruling class intended for him to play involves some intense contradictions that can bust open at any time. Obama, and the ruling class forces who installed him as their president, are walking a tightrope—he is working to pacify and defuse the anger of people who are justifiably angry and outraged, while carrying out an agenda defined by the capitalist system, and its relentless drive to exploit and oppress.

By the ruling class’ logic, Obama is supposed to “calm down” the anger on the part of Black people and all those who have some sense of what it meant for one of the nation’s preeminent African-American professors to be arrested at his own home for violating the “unspoken code” of how any Black man has to act to survive an encounter with police. For Obama to remain silent on the Gates Affair would have risked alienating a critical section of people. On the other hand, and even more fundamentally, Obama’s role as president is to preside over a system that has the subjugation of Black people deeply embedded into how it operates. That’s a contradiction fraught with great explosiveness.
IV. … Who Let the Dogs Out?

But even as Obama’s comments on the Gates arrest were calculated to serve the larger interests of the ruling class, he has come under a firestorm of criticism in the media, from police organizations, and the ruling class noise machine in general for his momentary acknowledgement of racial profiling. In response, Obama has backtracked, soft-peddled, and watered down his criticism, talking about how he “overreacted.” Even worse, he has now apportioned blame equally between the cop and Henry Louis Gates, who did absolutely nothing wrong!

Truth is truth, and there is a clear right and wrong here. Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his own home for refusing to speak quietly and repeatedly say “sir”—and instead for objecting to being abused when the police accused him of breaking into his own home. Such conduct has resulted in death at the hands of police for many, many Black and Latino people in this country. This kind of brutality and murder is endemic in this system, and that is just a fact.

To equate what this cop did, acting with all the authority of the state behind him to enforce oppressive social relations, with what Gates did, which was to exercise his right to verbally oppose those relations, is truly outrageous!

As we go to press, Obama invited the cop who subjected Gates to what by all accounts was a false arrest to the White House “for a beer,” along with Gates himself, and is saying both the cop and Gates accepted.

One result of all this backpeddling has been to leave those who have a basic sense of right and wrong confused and on the defensive, and assigned to the position of “let’s not overreact.”

But Obama’s calls for everyone to calm down and get along have not at all chilled out the racists, the fascists, and the motley collection of reactionary forces who are just fine with police keeping Black people “in their place.” They found Obama’s comments treasonous. These forces are being whipped into a frenzy by not just Fox News, but CNN, where Lou Dobbs said Obama “threw the cops under a bus,” and that Gates was “arrogant” for saying this should be a “teachable moment.”

And the Gates Affair is being meshed into a political whirlwind that includes prominent Republicans presiding over town hall meetings of outraged reactionaries who have been convinced that Barack Obama is actually an illegal immigrant from Kenya whose birth certificate is forged, and who is an operative of some kind of conspiracy to impose “socialism” on the United States through health care reform.

This is all serving up more raw meat up to a rabid fascist section of society. These forces have been, to now, more or less on a leash. But they are being kept in reserve—straining at their leashes—and in a state of increasing agitation against an administration they are being told is illegitimate.
V. Explosive Contradictions at the Heart of U.S. Society

The ruling class of this country attempted to purchase social peace on the cheap with Barack Obama, in order to carry forward a program that is bringing, and will bring, great suffering to people around the world, and to people within the U.S.

But the Gates Affair shows that the explosive contradictions at the very heart of U.S. society might not be so easily contained.
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