July 24, 2009
Professor’s Arrest Tests Beliefs on Racial Progress
By SUSAN SAULNY and ROBBIE BROWN
CHICAGO — Ralph Medley, a retired professor of philosophy and English who is black, remembers the day he was arrested on his own property, a rental building here in Hyde Park where he was doing some repair work for tenants.
A concerned neighbor had called the police to report a suspicious character. And that was not the first time Mr. Medley said he had been wrongly apprehended. A call Mr. Medley placed to 911 several years ago about a burglary resulted with the police showing up to frisk him.
“But I’m the one who called you!” he said he remembers pleading with the officers.
Like countless other blacks around the country, Mr. Medley was revisiting his encounters with the police as a national discussion about race and law enforcement unfolded after the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard’s prominent scholar of African-American history. Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct July 16 at his home in Cambridge, Mass., as the police investigated a report of a possible break-in there. The charge was later dropped, and the Cambridge Police Department said the incident was “regrettable and unfortunate.”
In interviews here and in Atlanta, in Web postings and on television talk shows, blacks and others said that what happened to Professor Gates was a common, if unacknowledged, reality for many people of color. They also said that beyond race, the ego of the police officer probably played a role.
But more deeply, many said that the incident was a disappointing reminder that for all the racial progress the country seemed to have made with the election of President Obama, little had changed in the everyday lives of most people in terms of race relations.
“No matter how much education you have as a person of color, you still can’t escape institutional racism,” said Keith E. Horton, a sports and entertainment lawyer in Chicago who is black. “That’s what the issue is to me.”
To be sure, people have found fault with how Professor Gates responded to the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who said he was simply fulfilling his duty in investigating the report of a burglary in progress.
The police and Professor Gates offered differing accounts of what happened after officers arrived. The police said Professor Gates initially refused to show identification and repeatedly shouted at officers. Professor Gates said that he had shown photo identification to Sergeant Crowley but that the sergeant had not appeared to believe that he lived there. He also said he had brought up race during the confrontation but was not disorderly.
Many comments posted online suggested that Professor Gates, 58, had made a tricky situation worse by not easily cooperating. Even some blacks acknowledged that he did not help himself by refusing to show deference to a police officer.
“It is unwise for anyone of any race to raise their voice to a law enforcement officer,” said Al Vivian, a diversity consultant in Atlanta who is black. “But the result at the end of the day is this was a man who violated no law, was in his own house, who is the top academic star at the top academic school in the nation, and he was still taken away and arrested.”
At a news conference on Wednesday night, President Obama said he thought the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in the arrest of Professor Gates.
“I think it’s worse than stupid,” said Mr. Medley, 65, the retired Chicago professor. “I think it was mean-spirited and ill-intended.”
In interviews, blacks and whites of various ages and experiences with law enforcement showed a tendency to give a benefit of the doubt to Professor Gates over the police.
“It seems to me that Dr. Gates was simply arrested for being upset, and he was arrested for being upset because he’s a black man,” said Wayne Martin, 25, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is also black.
The way Mr. Martin described himself, he could be the very definition of a “post-racial” American. “I have children I’m trying to raise not to see race,” he said. “I’m beyond the whole black-white thing. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Yet Mr. Martin could not think of any other way than racism to explain what had happened to Professor Gates. He is fascinated by the story. On Wednesday, he changed his Facebook status to: “Wayne Martin is wondering when it became illegal to be angry at a law enforcement official.”
Mr. Martin said that he was heartened to see Mr. Obama — who said he was a friend of Professor Gates — address the issue, and that while he agreed with Mr. Obama’s interpretation of the incident, he thought the word “stupidly” had been poorly chosen.
“That choice of the word was something that I don’t agree with,” Mr. Martin said. “To use such a common offensive term, it almost lowers him down to the level of the folks he’s wagging his finger at.”
Sabine Charles, 37, a white cardiologist who lives in Hyde Park, is married to a black man and said that she could not count how many times people had interrupted the two over the years to ask her, quietly, “Is this man bothering you?”
“I say, ‘Guess what? He’s not! We’re actually on a romantic date, can’t you tell?’ ” she said. “Even here in this diverse area I’ve heard people say, ‘Look at those black guys coming toward us.’ I say, ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ ”
“You have to be able to discern differences between people,” she said, criticizing the practice of racial profiling. “It’s very frustrating.”
Mr. Vivian, the diversity trainer in Atlanta, said that what happened to Professor Gates was “age old” in America, but that what was different this time was that it happened in a so-called post-racial America.
Mr. Vivian, 47, said that he had been unfairly stopped by the police in the past, but that he lived by “an unwritten code” for dealing with these incidents. And Dr. Gates certainly did not obey the code, he said.
Quiet politeness is Rule No. 1 in surviving an incident of racial profiling, he said. So is the frequent use of the word “sir.”
“People used to say, ‘Look, there’s a Colin Powell. There’s an Oprah Winfrey.’ Now they say, ‘There’s a black president.’ I say, I’m happy to see the exceptions. There’s always an exception. But I’m interested in how society treats the average person.”
That there is a well-known code of behavior familiar to most minorities who are stopped by the police, Mr. Vivian said, is testament enough of a problem.
“It clearly says that we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Susan Saulny reported from Chicago, and Robbie Brown from Atlanta.