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After Arrest, Cambridge Reflects on Racial Rift

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested July 16 outside his home, at left, in Cambridge, Mass., on the charge of disorderly conduct.
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested July 16 outside his home, at left, in Cambridge, Mass., on the charge of disorderly conduct. (By Charles Krupa -- Associated Press)

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By Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The town where a white police officer and a black scholar ignited a national conversation on race and law enforcement has begun to open the dialogue that President Obama invited.

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Before summer's end, the mayor, district attorney and police officials will convene a forum to grapple with the controversy over the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Sgt. James Crowley -- which exploded into a divisive debate that drew in the president.

Obama, who spoke to both men last week, called it a "teachable moment" for the nation on a "troubling aspect of our society." Gates said in an e-mail statement that he accepts Obama's invitation to begin talking and wants to work with the Cambridge Police Department. Crowley has not publicly responded to the invitation.

Residents of Gates's neighborhood, mostly upper-middle-class whites and a transient but diverse group of students in university housing, have begun pondering the meaning of the incident. Other questions also have emerged: What does it mean to have the nation's first black president involved? Will the discourse have lasting impact on the relationships between police and blacks and Latinos?

"It's disappointing," said Lawrence Neely, a 33-year-old doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who lives in a university-owned apartment building next-door to Gates's yellow wood-frame house. "We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have an African American mayor. We have an African American governor. We have an African American president, and just looking at the situation strictly at face value -- without getting into who is right and who is wrong -- we are now having a conversation about the question of whether one of the most influential African American scholars in the country has been racially profiled. It all makes it clear that this is still a reality."

Although others have been critical of Obama's role, Neely, who is black, said he was glad that the president weighed in and hopes the conversation on race will not go back underground.

People in the neighborhood are friendly and speak to one another, Neely said, but he added that the horde of reporters and television cameras outside Gates's home in the days after the arrest served as a reminder that the deeper issues of race are still little discussed.

Much is known about Gates's arrest on the charge of disorderly conduct, which was later dropped, but the folks who live here acknowledge that the incident did not happen in a vacuum.

Demographically, Cambridge is a liberal college town of about 100,000 people -- 65 percent white, 11.5 percent black, 12 percent Asian and about 7 percent Hispanic. The divide between the intellectual university affiliates and the rest of the mostly working-class residents is "from time to time quite tense," said Priscilla McMillian, a civic activist and historian who is white.

Merritt Harrison, a 75-year-old white man who lives around the corner from Gates, said that he understands why the police feel defensive, but that he probably would have had the same reaction as Gates if a police officer had showed up at his home and suspected him of being a burglar.

"I'm white, so I probably wouldn't have been arrested," said the part-time Episcopalian pastor, real-estate agent and counselor who has called the community home for 25 years. "I don't know. Was it racial profiling? I don't think anyone will ever know. But plenty of people think it was. The thing to do is to use it as an occasion to look at the issue. People need to talk."

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard who lives next-door to McMillian, said the moment provides an opening to look at "a real paradox persisting in the nation."


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