The Professor, the Policeman, and the President

The arrest of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. has quickly become the best-publicized case of disorderly conduct to hit Middlesex County since the Boston Tea Party. A week after the Harvard University Professor was taken into custody on his front porch, the shockwaves are still rippling.

The intense interest in the Gates case is not surprising—the bitter irony of a man renowned for his erudite scholarship on race becoming the victim of alleged racial profiling turns what would otherwise be a forgotten jot in a police blotter into a centerpiece of the conversation on race in America.

At Harvard, though, the Gates arrest is nothing new—it bears an uncanny resemblance to what has come before it. Last August, a black high school student was, like Gates, confronted by police for attempting to "steal" his own property while trying to unlock his bike. And in the spring of 2007, students called the police on the Black Men’s Forum and Association of Black Harvard Women barbeque in the Quad following a heated discussion on the Cabot House email list in which many expressed skepticism that the picnickers were actually Harvard students—the same sort of skepticism that may have compelled Gates's neighbor to phone in a burglary when she saw a black man attempting to force open a door.

These racial flare-ups were all the product of implicit assumptions about who belongs in a wealthy neighborhood or Harvard quadrangle and who does not—judgments made by police and nervous white neighbors—and the understandable indignation that African-Americans express when confronted with these assumptions. Gates grew angry when the cops come to ask him what he was doing in his own home because he, of all people, knew exactly why they were there.

It may not be helpful or accurate to say that this slightly sordid history proves that Cambridge’s police officers are racists, though. James Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, seems to be a model citizen. Sources describe him as a “stellar” policeman who coaches youth softball and, ironically, teaches a class on racial profiling at the Lowell Police Academy. It is possible that he may have, as he claims, followed police protocol when taking the professor down; the actual course of events of the arrest is difficult to piece together given the conflicting accounts offered by Gates and Crowley.

Yet regardless of Sergeant Crowley’s moral character, Gates was the victim of racial prejudice, just as the picnickers in the Quad were the victims of racial prejudice, just as every black student who has ever been asked to show ID to prove that he belongs in Harvard Yard has been the victim of racial prejudice. But the prejudice involved in these cases is subtle rather than overt.

As psychologists have been quick to note in the aftermath of the Gates arrest, racial biases are often implicit and unconscious, and their effects insidiously creep into even the most tolerant among us. Several studies find that even when we erase prejudice from our conscious mental processing, it lingers in the older, murkier corners of our cognitive architecture. In one experiment, researchers discovered that even subjects who demonstrated no racist attitudes still had increased activity in the amygdala—a part of the brain associated with fear and emotion—when shown images of black faces, and the results of implicit association tests consistently demonstrate that even progressive whites have more difficulty grouping images of African-Americans with positive adjectives than with negative ones. It turns out racism persists, in part, because the human mind is a tough nut to crack.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the entire affair, though, was hearing the Commander-in-Chief weigh in. Barack Obama usually treats discussions of race like trips to the dentist—occasional, unpleasant necessities to be avoided whenever possible. But on Wednesday night, in a primetime news conference, the President was strikingly candid.

At first, we saw the post-racial Obama, defusing the situation with a joke about how he would “get shot” if he tried to jimmy open the door of his current residence. But then he moved away from the script. His eyes narrowed, his voice grew somber, and he explained how the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly,” how the incident demonstrated that “race remains a factor in this society.”

Obama later backed away from his comments, claiming that his statement was “pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.” But the fact that the unflappable Barack Obama, even for a minute, was willing to confront uncomfortable facts about race in America shows how close to home the Gates arrest hits for the President.

Obama preaches an ethic of personal responsibility premised on the belief that in America, hope is audacious and anything is possible. Speaking at the NAACP last week, he told African-Americans, “Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses.”

Obama’s optimism is buttressed by his own story, which he often claims would be inconceivable in any other country. For that reason, he probably feels an affinity with Professor Gates, the son of a mill worker who went on to graduate from Yale and Cambridge and become one of the most distinguished scholars in America.

And yet, even though Gates followed the instructions Obama gave to the NAACP about “putting away the Xbox” and hitting the books as well as anyone possibly could, that couldn’t stop him from being arrested in his own home. It is the sort of ugly fact that does not fit in well with Obama’s rosy, American vision.

The persistent, subtle effects of implicit racial biases highlight the limits of the meritocracy. Gates’s arrest is a troubling reminder that overcoming the flaws of our society and minds requires more than talent and effort. Sometimes, try as we may, we can’t.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe '10, a Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.