Invisible Black America

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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 …

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