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Essay: Wil Haygood on the Racial Aspects of the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s recent encounter with police in Cambridge, Mass., reflects the often uneasy nexus of race and law enforcement in America.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s recent encounter with police in Cambridge, Mass., reflects the often uneasy nexus of race and law enforcement in America. (By Josh Reynolds -- Associated Press)

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I loved living in Cambridge, Mass., except when I didn't. And when I didn't was when I had left my apartment late at night to walk to the all-night corner grocery store with just that $10 bill stuffed into my pocket, having left my wallet on the bookcase in the hallway. Then, strolling along, soon as I spotted a police car, I'd tighten: Dammit, I'm gonna get stopped. Maybe some black guy broke into a home two blocks over. Maybe he was over 6 feet and slim like myself. Maybe there was no black guy two blocks over. I could, in that flash, without any ID, picture myself sitting in the police car, handcuffed. And then when the car would pass, when I'd finally exhale, I dared not look back over my shoulder, lest the officer think I was checking him out checking me out through his rearview mirror, which would have been a telltale sign of some kind of wrongdoing in motion.

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The little mind games that black men in Cambridge -- and other places -- sometimes play when it comes to the police.

I lived in Cambridge a little more than 15 years, working as a reporter. Lived within walking distance of Harvard University, where the scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. has long taught. You'd see him coming out of the Harvard Coop, or standing at the famous newsstand in the square, or just walking down the street, bopping along. A lot of "hi's" shouted out at him. If you're privy to the intellectual discourse of the nation, of course you knew of his fame. Physically, he's on the short side and walks with a limp. He doesn't, in the least, appear threatening.

So, I loved living in Cambridge, except when I didn't, which was when I'd just landed at Logan Airport in the middle of the night from a foreign reporting assignment and had to hop a taxi home. I'd insist the taxi driver wait until I was safely inside. I lived alone and wanted to make sure the place was empty. As well, I didn't want anyone walking by thinking I was trying to break into my own apartment.

So here's Gates the other day, just back from China, in his house (a tony neighborhood that I wouldn't have been caught fooling around in after, say, midnight, and by fooling around I mean walking home, because then, as a black man, you want to cross the street before the group of white females does, which you find insulting) after struggling with the jammed front door, and he suddenly notices police officers out front. Someone has called the police on him: a black man in a pricey neighborhood seen trying to get into somebody's home. The squad car rolls right up. (That's real estate reality for you: The police car might not have gotten to one of the streets over in mostly black Roxbury so quickly.) Gates wonders why the police are there; they explain why, a call about a possible break-in.

And then it probably starts to whoosh in Gates's own mind, like a desert wind that must peak before leveling off. Here we go again. Heated words because Gates, in these flashing moments, is not a scholar who studied at the University of Cambridge (in England) but a suspect. Forget the Harvard and personal ID's, he's in that touchy nexus and zone of black skin and law enforcement. And that peculiar zone can be exposed day or night. And when it beams on, it can show that the black man is carrying a lot of historical weight -- weight that Gates himself has put into scholarship and documentaries -- surrounding the heaviness of race in America. It's suddenly pent-up anger and jet-lag words flying on that wind that can't be taken back and skin color and real estate and cold eyes and I'm not breaking any law so just leave me alone please, dammit, please. Please.

But the wheels are already rolling, off to the police station.


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