Tuesday, July 21, 2009

henry louis gates and hip hop

Perhaps the most consistent theme in hip hop discourse is its bold critique of the criminal justice system in the United States. From its roots in the South Bronx through today, hip hop artists and culture have denounced crime and punishment in the United States in a way that essentially defies the underlying penal philosophy that has been adopted and championed by U.S. legislators for decades. Since the inception of hip hop as a musical genre, hip hop artists have rhymed in a narrative format that starkly informs listeners and fans that the entire fundamental regime of law and order in the United States is suspect, illegitimate and profane. Another example of U.S. law and order as unequal, illegitimate and suspect is currently before the American public yet again.

In another dreadful example of race and profiling in America, we learned yesterday that perhaps THE most respected African American public intellectual in the United States, Skip Gates, had been pulled from his own home and arrested. Returning home after filming a documentary in China, the renowned Harvard Professor found his front door jammed and forced his way into his house. Neighbors called police. When the police arrived, they questioned Gates, requested identification, and then, according to Gates, refused to acknowledge that his home address on his ID matched the address at the home they were tipped to respond. Once Gates became upset and repeatedly asked for the officer's name and badge number, calling the police line of questioning what it was, harassment, racial profiling and modern day bullying, the police arrested him for disorderly conduct. Police claim that Gates exhibited "loud and tumultuous behavior." According to Gates, the loud and tumultuous behavior was the repeated requests for names and badge numbers of police officers.

The news today is that the Cambridge police have dropped the charges against Professor Gates, but we are left with vexing questions:

First, if Professor Gates can be pulled from his home and arrested, based on a neighbor's call (how did the neighbor not know Gates?), then that essentially proves what the hip hop nation has proclaimed all along -- no black or brown face is safe from racism, profiling or discrimination in the United States. Henry Louis Gates was ARRESTED IN HIS OWN HOME for alleged disorderly conduct.

Second, while we listen to unending loops of U.S. citizens claiming that we have entered a post-racial place in America, we witness a hugely important African American intellectual, that spends his life examining and writing about issues of equality and justice, arrested, handcuffed and dragged down to the police station on what charge? Breaking and entering? No, he was inside his own home. Burglary or theft? No, again, he was inside his own place. Assault or battery upon a police officer? No, merely challenged the police verbally and requested their identification. No, he was arrested, charged and detained for disorderly conduct. And, on this charge, you can add Skip Gates to the number of African American citizens in the United States that have encountered the criminal justice system from the inside. Gates himself said:

"There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them," he said in an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday morning. "This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It's one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it."

Arrested for loud and tumultuous behavior?!

Third, the Cambridge police have dropped charges against Gates, but have unequivocally claimed that race had nothing to do with the arrest. Of course, the police must claim that the arrest had nothing to do with race, but who are they kidding? A black man using his shoulder to free a jammed door in Harvard Square in Cambridge? A neighbor not recognizing one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States? The police refusing to leave as soon as Gates provided them his identification where the address on the ID matched the address at the home? The police refusing to leave once Gates started giving it to them for racially profiling him, but instead asking him out of his house so that they could arrest him? All of this has nothing to do with race?

Last, the hip hop nation knows all too well what Professor Gates experienced last Thursday. To a person, my money says that those among us with brown or black faces, have experienced something very much like Gates just has. Hip hop describes this discrimination in raw and exacting detail. Henry Louis Gates, a fan and supporter of the hip hop nation, has now experienced what the nation knows. He said:

"I am appalled that any American could be treated as capriciously by an individual police officer. He should look into his soul and he should apologize to me," Gates said. "If so, I will be prepared to forgive him. I think that poor people in general and black people in general are vulnerable to the whims of rogue cops, and we all have to fight to protect the weakest among us. No matter how bad it was going to get, I knew that sooner or later I would get to a phone and one of my friends would be there to help. . . . I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that criminal justice system is rotten."

We have so much more work to do before we can claim that we have arrived at a post-racial America.


  1. In his book, 'Colored People' (1994), Gates wrote:

    "I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American?"

    Unfortunately, for people such as the unenlightened neighbor who called the police or the arresting officers, the color of Gates' skin will always be the most extraordinarly characteristic of his being. For that, and for the fact that they don't recognize intellectual brilliance even as it stares them in the face, I almost pity the people responsible for this shameful episode.

  2. unbelievable. the police had at least two opportunities to acknowledge their mistake and leave. rather than apologizing for interrupting professor gates in his home, they asked him to come outside so they could arrest and handcuff him. bush league. it smacks of white privilege ("how dare an african american defy me").

  3. I is so very sad that this web sight comes to conclusions without the facts. One of the reasons that race is a continuing issue in this country is that some choose to use any and all incidents to prove a case. Professor Gates may or may not have acted appropriately and the same for the officer. Neither you nor I know. Nor do we know if race had any impact whatsoever. The fact that a black cop on the scene backed up his fellow cop should at least give you pause. But since some unfortunately see life through a racial lens our problems persist.

    I know this will fall on deaf ears but America is the least racist place on earth. The sooner we all focus on our real problems the better off we will all be.

    As Larry Elder has effectively told all of us - living a life continually feeling like a victim is a self fulfilling prophecy. It time to move on and act like Americans not races.

    Very respectfully,


  4. Mike,

    As you correctly noted, none of us know exactly what happened that day at Professor Gates' home. Yes, it may be possible that his neighbor would have called the cops even if she had witnessed a 58-year old white man, rather than a black man, attempting to open the jammed front door. It may be that the officer would have refused to give his name or badge number to a white Harvard professor under the same circumstances. It may even be possible that the officer would have lingered for just as long in the home of an innocent white man, even after discovering that his presence was not needed. But I feel that all of these factors, combined with the ever smoldering racism that I perceive every day as a young American, supports the presumption held by so many: race contributed to the unfortunate way in which this incident was handled.

    With that said, I appreciate your perspective. Take care - B

  5. Mike:

    Interesting that you mentioned the black officer present on the scene but didnt mention that he explicitly stated "had i been the 1st officer to arrive on the scene it would have had a different outcome".

    Implicit in that statement is the notion that his race would have effected the outcome and therefore was a key factor in the situation.

    Just one mans thoughts.........

  6. Imagine this scenario: Two men break in to Professor Gates home. They find him present and tie him up. A passer-by sees the break in and calls the police. The police confront the men, who decline to show any identification. Would Professor Gates want the police to apolgize and leave?

  7. Thats a different scenario all together. In real life the officer walked into the mans home. Did he see all the pictures of him in the house and say "My god this black guy is crafty, he broke in and put up all these pictures of himself".

    This story is about a disorderly conduct charge. If he wasnt arrested we wouldnt be talking about it. I say keep the actual charge he was arrested for in focus and you will see why this is such bull.....

    Just one mans thoughts.......

  8. I am particularly concerned with Mike's comment where he ultimately concludes that we ought to act like Americans and not races. This notion is problematic because it calls into effect the essentializing blind patriotism that has caused years of racial animosity in the United States. It seems to me that the use of the term "Americans" is meant imply United States citizens, at least this is how it is commonly used. When we engage in this sort of grand narrative, we do an injustice to our differences. Keep in mind that differences also bring us together. It is like calling a Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan, baseball fans. Not only would this gloss over significant differences in the emotive aspects of fandom for each individual, but it would also ignore a larger cultural history that makes Red Sox fans or Yankees fans unique.

    I don’t believe people need to introduce themselves as different to whomever they meet, but I do think we could make positive steps towards addressing racial injustices if we accepted differences or at least addressed them. When we talk of Americans this or Americans that, we’re doing a disservice to the powerful value and historical importance of difference in the United States.

    Secondly, this self-filling prophecy idea that Mike brings up, paraphrasing Larry Elder is important. But too often that’s read to mean that no one can be a victim. We are all always responsible, 100 percent, for any ill that befalls us. That is an awful generous reading of responsibility and if we accepted that notion as a guiding principle in our legal system, then much, if not all, of tort and criminal law, would be redone. Of course, I’m carrying this argument to its logical extreme, but occasionally we must push the limits of our argumentation.

    Thirdly, viewing life through a racial lens is important to understanding our historical position. A feminist lens, an international relations lens, a Midwestern lens—all are important to how we come to understand others. I view lens through a lens that allows me to accept that others come to the law and participate in society in different ways, informed through different positions. and that as such the law and society respond in differing ways.

    I do thank you for your comment and appreciate being able to participate in this dialogue.

  9. I am bit late to this discussion. President Obama has already graciously had beers at his place about all of this. After reading the post along with the comments I just have a couple of thoughts.

    Just from a legal standpoint this entire thing is a joke. The officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. In Massachusetts, disorderly conduct is essentially behavior that might cause a riot. What chance would the State have in bringing this charge? The answer is no chance. As one article pointed out in the Times, "The law is aimed not at mere irascibility but rather at unruly behavior likely to set off wider unrest. Accordingly, the behavior must take place in public or in a setting where people tend to gather."

    How many times has someone been convicted on there own front porch with solely this charge? Never. Alleging racial bias, as Gates was doing, and protesting arrest both represent core political speech that is protected by the First Amendment and are clearly not examples of disorderly conduct.

    "I is so very sad that this web sight comes to conclusions without the facts." -- Mike

    I like facts too Mike, and I think it is important to recognize them. This is really a huge problem with the criminal justice system and this incident is just one more example.

    Here are some facts:

    African Americans are imprisoned at least eight times as often as European Americans.

    The majority of drug users are white but the majority of people imprisoned for drug use are African American.

    There is actually a phenomenon that occurs when people don't know who robbed them or committed a crime. It is articulated nicely in "Bowling for Columbine" and also "Culture of Fear." Essentially, people tend to describe a black man in his twenties who is around six feet tall whenever there is a lack of suspects.

    Susan Smith drowns her two children, Charles Stewart kills his pregnant wife, and the suspect both times is a black man around 6 feet tall in his twenties. This is a problem. A big problem.

    There is a simple reality here that the criminal justice system is failing minorities.

  10. some great comments here. thanks to those that commented.

    first, to michael, i drafted this blog post after i had read both the police report (authored by crowley) and prof. gates account in both "the roots" and the washington post. so, the facts were reviewed, so far as they were available. and, not surprisingly, officer crowley and prof. gates accounts are very different.

    for my part, i tend to believe a distinguished american scholar over a police officer trying to force the facts to meet massachusetts law. as my father has always said, the truth is often somewhere in the middle when two very different accounts are provided. still, my experience with law enforcement leads me to think that prof. gates side of the story is closer to actual events than office crowley's.

    as to larry elder's comment, i doubt very much that prof. gates was acting like a victim. he simply wanted the police to leave his house and leave him alone. in my view, the police had a duty to retreat quickly once they discovered that prof. gates lived at the home and was appropriately there. no one was in danger. instead, the officers baited prof. gates out of the house so they could arrest him for disorderly conduct, which, under massachusetts law, requires a public display that inflames passersby (paraphrasing). only way to get that charge is to pull gates out of the comfort of his home. which crowley did.

    to stonestreet, the facts you indicate prove out that we are not yet a post-racial country. we will not get there ignoring the racism and discrimination that continues, as you record. of course larry elder and others predisposed to elder's position want to ignore race or claim that we must begin acting as one. that is called "status quo" and so long as people of color continue to face racism and discrimination, then turning a blind eye is simply perpetuating inequality.

  11. What is the new update for Henry louis?

  12. I remember the news, it was all over the news channels and newspapers.


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