recovering racists

By now it’s old news that Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in his own home for… well… for being unexpectedly black in his own home I guess.  This is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Gates’ daughter Elizabeth, which can be found in it’s entirety here.  Reading this brought to mind my experience of being barred from a flight after calling a gate agent out on his seemingly racist motives for harrassing me about my carry on luggage.


So you do think this was reduced to race? You do think this was purely racially motivated—that when he came into your home uninvited and didn’t read you your Miranda rights and he didn’t follow procedure?

No, when I was arrested I was not read my Miranda rights. I clearly was arrested as a vindictive act, an act of spite. I think Sgt. Crowley was angry that I didn’t follow his initial orders—his demand—his order—to step outside my house because I was protected as long as I was in the house because he didn’t have a warrant. I think what he really wanted to do was throw me down and put handcuffs on me because he was terrified that I could be dangerous to him and that I was causing violence in my own home—though obviously he didn’t know it was my home.

If I had been white this incident never would have happened. He would have asked at the door, “Excuse me, are you okay? Because there are two black men around here try’na rob you [laughter] and I think he also violated the rules by not giving his name and badge number, and I think he would have given that to one of my white colleagues or one of my white neighbors. So race definitely played a role. Whether he’s an individual racist? I don’t know—I don’t know him. But I think he stereotyped me.

And that’s what racial profiling is all about. I was cast by him in a narrative and he didn’t know how to get out of it, and then when I demanded—which I did—his name and badge number, I think he just got really angry. And he knew that he had to give me that, and his police report lies and says he gave it to me. If he had done that I would have simply taken it down and wrote a report! I was definitely going to file a report, now—just not as big as the one I’m about to file!

So since it’s clear this happens every day to minorities everywhere who don’t have representation, who like yourself previously believed in the justice system, what can we do as a community to make sure that our world starts to place value on all people of color—not only the exception, as you have been referred to so often during this ordeal?

I think its incumbent upon me to not let it drop—not to sweep it under the carpet—but to use this as a teaching event for the Cambridge police and police in general and for black people—don’t step out of your house. Don’t step onto that porch! You’re vulnerable. And second? To teach the police about the history of racism, what racism is. Sgt. Crowley found it outrageous that I was demanding his name? I mean, excuse me? Whose house was he in? Hello?


My house. I mean, he was there investigating? He should have gotten out of there and said, “I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series—check with you later!” [laughter from both of us] If he would have given me his card I would have sent him a DVD! [more laughter]

But you’ve always taught my sister Maggie and me to stay on the right side of the law. Did this challenge your perception of what side that really is? Or are we always going to have to humble ourselves to this humiliating degree?

No. I believe in the law. I think we have a great system of justice. But I do think that system of justice has been corrupted by racism and classism. I think it’s difficult for “poor people”—poor white people, brown people—to be treated fairly before the law in the same way that upper-class people are. I mean listen, Liza. I was lucky. I could have been in there all night with as few as three other prisoners. What if I had been anonymous and in some other place? It’s scary, man. That’s why we have to fight through organizations such as the NAACP defense fund, on whose board I sit—we have to fight for equal rights for all people. It’s beyond race, it’s class and race! And that’s crucial.

There’s been so much talk about Black America moving into a “Post-Black Era.” What do you think it will take to actually achieve that? I mean, is it possible?

The only people who live in a post-black world are four people who live in a little white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. [laughter] The idea that America is post-racial or post-black because a man I admire, Barack Obama, is president of the United States, is a joke. And I hope no one will even wonder about this crazy fiction again. I am proud of the American people for electing the best candidate who happened to be a black man and that’s a great historical precedent in the United States, but America is just as classist and just as racist as it was the day before the election—and we all, to quote my friend Cornel West, “are recovering racists,” and we all have to fight those tendencies. In America there is institutional racism that we all inherit and participate in, like breathing the air in this room—and we have to become sensitive to it.


Arresting officer Sgt. Crowley who teaches a racial profiling class at the Police Academy in Lowell, Mass.  Apparently it is not a “how to” course.

15 thoughts on “recovering racists

  1. great post! my coworker (white male) and i (black female) were just talking about this over lunch. i sent him the link to your post 🙂

  2. Here’s an issue: even if it’s your house, without running your license and talking to you outside cops don’t know (a) if you’re being held hostage or someone in your family is (b) if you’re subject to a restraining order or have warrants and (c) whether you’re up to no good in your own home, by, for example, having hurt a family member. SOP dictates ID, running for warrants, and taking things to the safety of the neutral ground outside to figure out what really happened.

    Gates lost his mind in this episode, made casual accusations of racism, kept disrespecting officers and screaming, and deserved to be arrested and deserves to be ridiculed until he apologizes. Obama made a big moral and political mistake in weighing in on this local issue when he’s biased (by his own admission) and wrong and confirming the stereotypes of black politicians: They stand up for blacks and are negative to law enforcement even when blacks misbehave.

  3. Mr. Roach, the question remains..Would this have gone different if he were white in the same setting and circumstance? Older man, with a cane, greying hair, glasses and a golf shirt on. White people are often belligerent to the police and don’t get arrested, especially if they live in the right zip code.

  4. But when they do, it doesn’t make national news. Do you watch the TV show Cops? You can watch white guys get arrested all day.

  5. Yes, if your white, with no shirt on in the wrong zip code, you’re going to jail. Not that I’m condoning class-ism, but money does talk.

  6. The fact that people want to make this an issue about race (thanks Obama) is the absurd.

    Kudos to the police for doing their job- serving and protecting. It’s too bad they encountered a racist prick.

  7. i feel bad for Gates…im on Gates side. the police really need to stop abusing their power… some point they will probably cross the line.

    Gates should be thankful that the police didnt “accidentally” kill him or beat him up, since they have a knack for doing that..even to black people that did no wrong.

    one good thing to come out of this, was that i found out this white guy was racist, he had been hiding it, but this incident, revealed their racist beliefs…i had always suspected it…but had never had anything to go on, til now….that idiot is out of my life indefinitely.

    i am fully behind Gates 100% black people need to speak up more about this. whites can keep ignoring and pretend to live in their perfect little “racist free” world…but that isnt going to solve anything…

    i am not going to discuss this further. its not up for debate. what i said is final. i will not apologize or pretend about reality. as a minority, i see the world for what it TRULY is.

  8. if anything, obama’s election probably took this country back a couple of years.

    its been 40 years since the civil rights movement, with america still being very racist (and more closeted about it), i dont think america really was ready for a black president.

    either he messes up and the whole black race will somehow have to foot all the blame…or at some point in these 4 years….the people who live in denial, who think racism against blacks doesnt exist anymore, are going to have to wake up and see its still there…because things will more than likely get worse.

    like i said in a different post, somewhere…the problem isnt just the racists…its those living in denial…..if anything, the people who live in denial are allowing racism to happen and they are worse than the racists themselves….

  9. Whatever. Gates is a primma donna who acted like an asshole and got busted. Big deal. It had nothing to do with race, other than in his own imagination and the imagination of other black people who see phantom racism everywhere when, instead, they should see black underachievment caused by black moral failures and bad black behavior. Gates is a prime example, even though this is out of character for him: he acted terribly and aggressive and still has the gall to talk about lawsuits and white racism, racism that he concoted out of thing air.

    PS I don’t like Obama. He’s a liberal Democrat. I didn’t like Clinton either for the same reason. He’s president, the man, one of the big boys now. You can’t keep hollering racist every time we don’t like one of his retarded, socialist policies. Him knocking law enforcement and standing up for his buddy’s uncivilized behavior doesn’t help things either.

  10. because gates has more power than the average black, he should be the voice for all the black men and women who have been harmed by police.

    like 12 year old dymond millburn….the police even make the mistake, and they decide to arrest her to cover their own butt!

    and there was kathryn johnston who was 92 when she was gunned down by police, who had framed her to try and save their butts.

    then there was a black officer shot down by a white police officer all because he was trying to catch someone who broke into his car.

    gates and obama need to address this…..because the courts refuse to do anything about it….they are all for abusive out of line police officers.

    in the end…the gates incident proves that even upper middle class blacks, are treated like thugs…simply for being black….

    when upper middle class blacks are treated this way…then there truly is no hope for any blacks period.

  11. because im a minority, i have to look at the world realistically….i wish i could have the luxury of pretending racism against blacks doesnt exist like most whites do…..i tried doing that as a kid growing up…pretending racism doesnt exist…in the end, i had to learn the hard way that a minority cant pretend racism doesnt exist.

  12. I can see we are not all in agreement of what happened at the Gates residence. Was it racially motivated, police misconduct or a non-racial incidence? I wonder what the black officer said and thought? I wonder if Mr Crowley, knowing what he knows now, would he do it the same? Should Gates not be arrested for simply what zip code he resides? Was Crowley blinded by the fact that Gates was black and he didn’t think he was well connected for one moment? “Harvard professor of Africa American Studies” should have been a red flag in Crowley’s mind. Everybody wants to talk about the racism but not on class-ism. Who can claim not to be a class-ist? LOL, my spell check says the word doesn’t exist. No surprise to me, we condone class-ism but not racism. We have a long way to be truely objective ourselves.

    Also, this incidence was purposely blown up(for better or worse) and having a rare Obama screw up was just bonus. Were you aware that Soledad had a pre-Obama speech, pre-Black in America II show? CNN’s timing and execution was perfect and the sequence of events of how the story broke shouldn’t be lost to us. They got a lot of mileage out of this story. Without any major disaster and the summer doldrums, you have to be ‘creative’ in order to maintain or build ratings. They knew the story would break at the press conference, although it was the Chicago Sun-Times who asked the question. I wonder where they learned it from? Would you be surprised if they learned it from CNN? I wouldn’t.

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