Panel Discusses Gates Controversy and Racism


A panel of experts came together yesterday at the Harvard Law School to discuss concerns of racial profiling by America’s police force that were prompted by this summer’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the controversy it sparked.

The discussion—which included professors, police chiefs, and students—provided further insight into the Gates incident and recognized that the topic of race relations in America is still a pressing issue.

“When I walk into a store and the clerk has been rude to me, I think in my mind is he just being a jerk to be a jerk, or is he being a jerk because of my race?” said Oakland police chief Anthony W. Batts, who is African American.

Professor Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.—director of the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute—said he saw an important yet disconcerting lesson in civics brought forward by the Gates incident. He said that he wanted to raise the question of whether African Americans could fully exercise their rights in the same way as whites without fearing arrest.


“You can speak sharply to the police. You have that constitutional right,” said Sullivan. “Is it prudent? Probably not.”

Professor Christopher E. Stone of the Kennedy School advised that the country move beyond the “catch-all term” of racial profiling, which he said is an overused notion, and look deeper at the Gates controversy to learn from it.

Rather than looking at a situation in terms of racial profiling, Yale law professor Tracey L. Meares said we should see two areas of police action: lawfulness and legitimacy. “When we think only in terms of lawfulness and unlawfulness, then there is no vocabulary and no capacity to deal with an African American man or anyone else who is reacting to a situation and calls it racial profiling,” said Meares.

Several police chiefs in the audience weighed in on the discussion, discussing the steps they took after the Gates incident.

“We had conversations on racial profiling and dialogue about police tactics,” said Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. “There is a real cultural difference in contact with officers and we were able to work through that. Everyone should be more aware of police tactics.”

Audience member Gabriel Love, who is a student at the law school, said he was “impressed” by the sentiments expressed by police chiefs at the discussion.

“They are aware of the problems with the way the criminal justice system is run now and how ineffective it can be,” said Love. “I appreciate how they seem open to new innovative solutions and aren’t stuck in old ruts.”


An earlier version of the Oct. 30 news article "Panel Discusses Gates Controversy and Racism" incorrectly identified Ed Davis as Lowell Police Chief. In fact, though he formerly held that title, he now serves as Boston Police Commissioner.