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Invisible Black America

Alex Brandon/AP Images
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden having a beer with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009

On July 16, 2009, Sergeant James Crowley, a white police officer answering a call to investigate a possible break-in at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, address not far from Harvard, arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., charging him with disorderly conduct, even though the middle-aged black man had shown that he was not a burglar and was not trespassing in his own home. The district attorney dismissed the charge five days later. Yet the controversy over the arrest of one of Harvard’s most famous professors set off debates about police conduct and racial profiling and also about race, class, and privilege. Because, as it turned out, black people and white people viewed these matters from such different perspectives, the arrest of Professor Gates reminded many that a profound racial divide still exists, in spite of our having elected a black president.

A week later, at a news conference about health care, President Obama was asked about the incident and he said that Skip Gates was a friend and that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting somebody who had proven that he was in his own home. The uproar that followed led Obama to invite both Gates and Crowley to the White House for guy talk and trouser hitching as they drank beer. Obama seemed to be scrambling to defend his image as the national reconciler, while having to absorb the warning implicit in the protests of policemen’s unions that white America was made uneasy by the nation’s first black president speaking as a black man or identifying with the black man’s point of view.

In The Presumption of Guilt, Charles Ogletree regrets that Obama lost what has come to be called a “teachable moment,” a chance to educate the country, Philadelphia speech–style, about race, yet had to pay a political cost for his innocent part in the Gates affair nevertheless. Ogletree argues that what was in effect the silencing of President Obama on the issue of how blacks are targeted by police helped to embolden Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement at a critical moment. Ogletree may be right, and The Presumption of Guilt is intended to impart some of the lessons about the injustice of racial profiling that Obama did not—and may never—get a chance to draw. But Ogletree has his own innocence about integration as a form of social protection for blacks, and a perhaps inadvertent message of his book is that middle-class black people, or black people connected to powerful institutions, should not expect to be exempt from the systemic racism that affects black American lives.

Ogletree is Gates’s personal attorney as well as a member of the Harvard Law School faculty where he served as “mentor” to both the President and the First Lady. He loses no time in affirming the legal correctness of the black man’s point of view in Gates’s situation. That July morning in 2009 an elderly white woman told another white woman that she saw two men who looked as though they were trying to force the door at a house on Ware Street, and the other woman phoned the police. What the woman saw was Gates, whose key was not working, forcing open his jammed front door with the help of his driver. The woman who made the call to 911 also said that it was possible that a crime had not been committed, that the two men maybe had had a problem with their key.

Sergeant Crowley then arrived on the scene. Gates was on the phone inside his rented house, reporting his faulty door to Harvard housing. Ogletree is clear that no matter how disrespectful and “uncooperative” Professor Gates may have been, he was within his rights. The statute concerning disorderly conduct that Crowley invoked to make the arrest did not apply, because Gates’s behavior was not likely to affect other members of the public. But that was also why Crowley insisted that Gates come outside. Then, too, Ogletree writes, he had no right to step inside Gates’s home unasked, but he did. Gates was not obliged to say who he was, produce ID, or step outside with the officer, but he did. If the arrest was “not inevitable,” as Ogletree phrases it, then what was Sergeant Crowley’s “motivation” for putting Professor Gates in handcuffs?

Ogletree compared the arresting officers’ statements with the police dispatch log and found that at no time did the woman who called the police say the men were African-American. One of the two witnesses said one man may have been Hispanic. “To this date, the only person ever to suggest that two African Americans with backpacks were involved is Officer 52 in this transcription, who is identified as Sgt. James Crowley.”

The transcript also indicates that when Professor Gates produced his ID he told Crowley to phone the chief of the Harvard University police department. Instead, Crowley told the Cambridge police dispatcher to “keep the cars coming,” and to send the campus police, too. His report, Ogletree writes, “reflects his skepticism about Professor Gates’s actual identity.” Having been shown Gates’s information, he acted as though he was dealing with a suspicious person. He didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t believe that Gates was who he said he was.

The six-minute clash between Crowley and Gates, Ogletree says, tells the story of a police officer who believes, “perhaps because of his prejudices, that a crime is being committed and an innocent person [who] believes that he is being unfairly profiled by a police officer.” However, for Ogletree the deeper story, as Crowley’s report indicates, is that Crowley arrested Gates because “he had been called names of a racial nature by Professor Gates.” The black man was busted for the crime black people sometimes call “contempt of cop.”

It is maybe a reflection of what the post–September 11 atmosphere of humorless security officials in public places has further done to us as a society that so many people seemed to accept that in a contest between freedom of speech and the authority of the law it was to be expected that the representative of authority would win. If civilian Gates gave uniformed Crowley “attitude,” then, in this view, he was asking for trouble. Two black colleagues of Crowley’s sided with him. But it is not a crime to sound off to uniforms. Some white people also said that they believed Crowley would have treated a white man screaming at him no differently. They had trouble grasping the point that not only would Crowley not have looked at an angry white man in the same way, a white person in his home would not have looked at Crowley as Gates did.

The histories are entirely different. Gates insulted the blue-collar Crowley, who could immediately punish the offense of having been verbally lectured by a well-off black man, because he assumed that he was working in a society that tolerates racial profiling as a crime-fighting strategy. White policemen probably humiliate black men somewhere in America every day.

What did not receive much attention compared to his criticism of the Cambridge police was the President’s mention of the racial-profiling bill that he worked on in the Illinois state legislature, “because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately.” Gates’s arrest, Ogletree goes on to say, had to be seen in the context of “law enforcement prone to be biased against African Americans” and blacks mistrustful and fearful of law enforcement.

Ogletree reviews the 1991 Rodney King beating and some of the most notorious police misconduct cases since—Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant tortured by New York City police in 1997; four young black men shot (three of whom were injured) on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1998 when police, without any clear evidence, suspected them of being involved in gang activities; Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant shot in New York in 1999 nineteen times by police who were acquitted of all charges; Sean Bell, unarmed in a stopped car, killed on the eve of his wedding in Queens in 2008 in a hail of police bullets. The officers were acquitted of all charges. These sensational miscarriages were brewed in the culture of racial profiling.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found in 2007, according to Roy L. Brooks in his Racial Justice in the Age of Obama (2009), that while drivers of all colors were pulled over by police at approximately the same rate, black and Latino drivers were much more likely to be searched and arrested. Blacks were twice as likely to be arrested as whites and they were also more likely to be released from jail without a charge having been made, which, Brooks contends, “strongly suggests that there was no probable cause for arresting them in the first place.”

Moreover, black America for the most part lives in areas under heavy police surveillance. Acquaintance with the state as a disciplinary force comes early. According to statistics from the Pew Center as well as the Department of Justice that Ogletree cites, the “realities of racial disparity in the criminal justice system” are that “‘one in every 15 black males aged 18 or older is in prison or jail,’ versus one in every 36 men for Hispanic males and one in every 106 White males,” and that “the lifetime risk of incarceration for a child born in 2001 is 1 in 3 for black males, 1 in 6 for Latino males, and 1 in 17 for white males.”

Ogletree is knowledgeable about the insidiousness of institutional racism,1 but it is unfortunate that he has chosen to examine the practice of racial profiling by turning his book into a collection of statements by one hundred prominent victims of contemptuous treatment by authorities. They include lawyers, professors, journalists, athletes, and actors—Eric Holder, Vernon Jordan, Blair Underwood, Calvin Butts, William Julius Wilson, Joe Morgan, Roger Wilkins, Derrick Bell, and Spike Lee—though not everyone in Ogletree’s roster of the injured is known nationally. Some have found themselves over the hoods of cars, mistaken for criminals, treated like criminals. Cops are suspicious of interracial couples and of black guys they consider to be in the wrong neighborhood. Black men are stopped, searched, detained, threatened.

Most of the incidents Ogletree has heard about from his list of successful black men are confrontations with police that could have escalated. For instance, in the early 1980s L.A. police ordered Johnnie Cochran out of his Rolls-Royce at gunpoint while his children watched in horror. Ogletree’s definition of racial profiling is broad. He includes Lou Gossett Jr. saying that his refusal to accept certain film roles because of his pride as a black man meant that he was denied other parts as punishment.

In this collection of anecdotes, racial profiling is taken to be any manifestation of racist assumptions, such as white women clutching their handbags when black men approach them on the streets. The black men in Ogletree’s survey remember insults from hotel doormen and valets. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recollects that a taxi driver once refused to take him to his office, a story almost every black man in New York City could tell. The insults Ogletree records are not trivial; but one quickly understands the irritation of the black working poor with the outrage of black professionals at the social indignities they encounter. There are worse things than not having one’s high social status acknowledged by whites.

  1. 1

    See Olgetree’s All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (Norton, 2004) and his contributions to Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities (Northeastern University Press, 1995). 

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