In Henry Gates's Arrest, Hard Realities and Human Nature

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, July 24, 2009

"It didn't matter how I was dressed. It didn't matter how I talked. It didn't matter how I comported myself."

-- Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The nation's most famous black scholar was arrested last week breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass., after returning from a trip to China and discovering that his key didn't work. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is quite reasonably furious and quite reasonably assumes that it wouldn't have happened if he (and the car-service driver who helped him) were not black. Cambridge police say it wouldn't have happened if Gates had not been "tumultuous," which also may be true, but is neither here nor there. After calming down a bit, Gates responded to being arrested the way any self-respecting Harvard professor would: He informed Charles Ogletree, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School ("Call Tree," he told his secretary as he was driven off, cuffed), and vowed to make a documentary about unjust arrests.

Gates is being painfully reasonable. He says he is glad that a neighbor called the cops when she saw something suspicious going on at his front door, and he hopes she would do so again. He seems surprised that this sort of thing still goes on, which will lose him points in some circles but gain them for him in the credibility department. He is no Al Sharpton, constantly scanning the horizon for his next news conference. (Sharpton has already piped up, presumably uninvited.)

Gates nobly but unconvincingly frames his anger in nonracial terms: "How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?" In 2009, there may well be neighborhoods where a couple of white men fiddling with front-door locks are a greater cause for suspicion than a couple of black men. And there may be racist black cops who are too quick to arrest them. But those cases must be even rarer than the race-based arrest of a black Harvard professor.

The documentary should be interesting. Gates is a victim of racial profiling, which, if it is anything more than another term for racial discrimination, means leaping to unjustified conclusions about people because of their race. This sounds like something we all can deplore without much reflection, but it's not that easy.

First, generalizing about people based on characteristics that have no direct connection to the reason you are generalizing is both unavoidable and essential. If the police -- "called to the scene," as they say -- find two women of any race seeming to break into a house, they are going to be quicker to believe the story that one of them lives there. They just are. Possibly because it's more likely to be true. I doubt this prejudice can be trained out of them, and at some point you don't want police to be trained to ignore their hard-earned instincts and experience.

Second, generalizations about race don't lead only to bad things, like an unjustified arrest. They can lead to good things, too. The best example is well known around Harvard Square and other academic communities: affirmative action. Part of the rationale for affirmative action is that African Americans are more likely than whites to have struggled harder, under the burden of greater disadvantages, to reach the point where they are poised to enter Harvard. Therefore, they deserve a break. No doubt this is true on average. And no doubt it is false in many cases. You can easily decide that some generalizations are just too toxic to allow, even if true on average, and race might be a good area to start. But you'd be hard-put to justify forbidding racial generalizations in split-second decisions during tense confrontations between citizens and cops, while allowing them in the relatively leisurely precincts of a college admissions office.

Third, Skip Gates did not want to be treated like a citizen of society, no more and no less. He wanted to be treated on the basis of "how I was dressed" and "how I talked" and "how I comported myself." In short, he wanted to be treated like a Harvard professor. And who can blame him for that? After all, it's a pretty good generalization that someone seen breaking into a house near Harvard Square is less likely to be a burglar if he is also a Harvard professor (and has the ID to prove it, as Gates did).

But how does a Harvard professor dress for his own arrest? A photo taken by a neighbor during the episode and posted on the Web shows Professor Gates, just off the plane from China, definitely underdressed for the occasion in a red polo shirt and dark slacks. At least he wasn't in jeans. In a recent column, George Will denounced jeans as (if I've got this right) a phony effort by folks with no dirt under their nails to show solidarity with the masses. At the time this struck me as overexcited, or at least several decades too late. But maybe Will has a point. As the Chevy Chase police no doubt are aware, one does not break into someone else's house in a tweed sport coat and bow tie.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company