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Henry Louis Gates: When White People See Black

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 25, 2009

The roiling debate over the arrest of prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has focused on what he and Sgt. James Crowley, the white police officer, said to each other. Their accounts differ, but at least we have their perspectives.

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Less attention has been paid to Lucia Whalen, whose call to the Cambridge, Mass., police on the afternoon of July 16 set events in motion.

According to Crowley's report, Whalen said she "observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch" of the house. "She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry," he wrote.

Neighborhood watch. A good thing, right?

Larry Irving, a resident of Woodley Park and subscriber to the Cleveland Park e-mail discussion list in Northwest suggested in an e-mail that "what happened in upscale, affluent, liberal, but disproportionately white Cambridge could as easily happen in upscale, affluent, liberal but disproportionately white Ward 3," where he lives.

Irving said that every year, usually in the spring and summer, there is a series of "outrageous e-mails saying 'There are black people knocking on doors. They are burglars.' " He noted that as one of the relatively few black residents of Woodley Park, he hasn't sensed overt racism or racial antagonism from his neighbors.

But, Irving added, "there is no reluctance on the part of people in a public forum, such as [the e-mail list], to bluntly note that people need to 'make note of young Black men in our neighborhoods,' 'take pictures of these people when you see them.' "

"That's not seen as racist," Irving wrote. "That is seen as being prudent in a urban environment."

To illustrate his point, Irving provided texts of e-mails sent to the Cleveland Park list in early July. Excerpts:

-- "I observed two African American men engaged in conversation on my doorstep this morning. They ignored me, jotted something into a clipboard, finished their conversation and retreated down the steps. As they did I noticed the younger man was carrying a magazine labeled 'The Advocate.' "

-- "A well-dressed African-American young man came to our house a little after 7 p.m. yesterday evening. My husband did not open the door, but talked to him through the clear part of our door. The man kept asking my husband to open the door, and my husband kept asking the man how he could help him and what was the nature of his business. The man first said he was of no danger, and finally said he 'obviously' was selling something (the man was carrying no papers, nothing). My husband responded that he was not interested in purchasing anything. The man looked annoyed and left. The man looked back toward our house and saw my husband watching through the window."

-- "A similar young man came by our house yesterday. He said he was 'selling magazines and newspapers,' but he had no paperwork with him and looked like he made it up. When he left, I saw him go to the next house and knock on the door. Looks like the neighborhood is being cased during the day to try to find houses where no one is home . . . knocking on neighborhood doors and attempted break-ins later."

-- "I had a well-dressed black male stop by my house yesterday at around 10 a.m. and say he was with a Bible study group and wanted to know if I wanted to pray with him. I declined. He came back at around 6 p.m. and asked if I'd like to buy magazines from him. I didn't think much of that until I got this message."

-- "About 5 p.m. Monday, a well-dressed black male knocked on my door. I was at home sick and did not answer, but he had stepped back far enough from the door for me to see him through the window. This may be coincidence, but I thought it was worth mentioning."

Irving said that such young men have knocked on his door every spring and summer for the past four years and his house has not been burglarized. He said his wife subscribed to a magazine one year and that it came as advertised.

He recently politely declined a magazine offer, Irving said. "They said thanks and walked away. No scowls. No sarcasm. And amazingly, no burglaries."

Wrote Irving: "Folks in these communities have Black friends and co-workers. They vote for Obama. They have all of Michael Jackson's and Miles Davis's recordings. But when they see a Black man at their door or their neighbor's door and he is not wearing a postal, FedEx or UPS uniform, they see thief, burglar or worse. And, they have no regret or remorse for that visceral reaction. That's just pathetic. And one day it could be tragic . . ."

What's it like on the block where you live?

kingc@washpost.com


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