Race, Police, and Henry Louis Gates

By now, most of us have heard about the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for disorderly conduct. Upon first hearing bits of the story, it was natural to assume that racism had something to do with it. After all, Professor Gates is 58 years old, wears glasses, and seems a highly unlikely candidate for a legitimate arrest. What, then, could explain what happened? Race. Maybe.

Racism is undoubtedly a factor in many police decisions. Profiling is ubiquitous, and police have admitted using race as a proxy for likelihood of criminal conduct. That said, however, the facts of Gates's case offer a very plausible alternate explanation for what happened, albeit one that is not that much more flattering to the police.

Consider the facts in greater detail. According to Gates, he was having a difficult time opening his own front door, after returning from a trip. He then asked his driver to help him force open the door. Someone saw two men trying to force open the door and called the police. Again, according to Gates, the police arrived, and an officer asked Gates -- who was already inside his home -- to produce identification that would prove his residence. Gates did so. After doing so, however, Gates asked the officer to show his own badge and the officer refused (the police dispute this part) and walked away. Gates then followed the officer and suggested that the refusal reflected racism. Gates was subsequently arrested and held for hours.

As Gates has himself acknowledged, it was appropriate for someone in the neighborhood to call the police and for the police to come to the scene, when two people appeared to be trying to force their way into his house. Gates reportedly said of the caller, in fact, that "[i]f she saw someone tomorrow that looked like they were breaking in, I would want her to call 911. I would want the police to come." We therefore should not attribute racism to the caller in this case, even though one can never rule it out entirely.

What police should certainly not have done, after asking Gates for identification and thereby confirming that he did in fact live in the house, was to arrest him for disorderly conduct. Questioning police conduct and asking for a badge do not authorize an arrest.

But police do not like anyone questioning their authority, and Gates had done just that. By his own account, Gates demanded that the officer who had asked to see Gates' identification show Gates his own identification and then, when the officer allegedly ignored the demand, Gates followed him and said "Is this how you treat a black man in America?"

Gates's demand for identification and the immediate accusation of racism showed disrespect for the police, and many less prominent citizens (white and black alike) would have refrained from such an exhibition, as a matter of prudence. Yet Gates had every right to speak in the way that he did, and to arrest him for it was an illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power.

It may not, however, be accurate to say that the misconduct was motivated by Gates's race. Just as likely, it stemmed from a destructive arrogance through which police wish to see unquestioning compliance with their demands and punish those who disappoint this wish.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb