Columnist: Take another look at the Gates incident

Published 9:54 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Please take a good look at Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

He is 5-foot-7, weighs 150 pounds, wears glasses and uses a cane. His legs are of unequal length, his mustache and goatee are gray. He is 58 years old and looks it.

It’s important to see Gates – scholar, author, documentarian, Harvard University professor and African-American man – because that’s what Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass. police department apparently did not do in the July 16 confrontation that has ignited debate about racial bias in the U.S. “justice” system. For the three of you who do not know: the incident began when Gates, returning home from a trip to China, found his front door jammed. When he and his driver tried to force it, a neighbor, thinking it a burglary in progress, did the right thing and called police. Crowley responded, finding the driver gone and Gates inside. There are two versions of what happened next.

Police say Gates refused to comply with Crowley’s order to step outside, initially would not identify himself and became belligerent, yelling that Crowley, who is white, is a racist, that he didn’t know who he was messing with and that this was only happening because Gates is black.

Gates says he promptly produced his driver’s license and Harvard ID, that the officer refused to provide his name and badge number, and that he could not have yelled anything because he has a severe bronchial infection.

This much is not in dispute: Gates was arrested “after” providing proof he was lawfully occupying his own home. The police report says he was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place.” That being his own front porch. Small wonder the charge has been dropped.

And here, Sgt. Crowley’s defenders would want you to know he is not some Central Casting redneck, but an experienced officer who has led diversity workshops.

On the other hand, Gates is hardly Sister Souljah himself. Rather, he is a man who did the things African Americans are always advised to do – work hard, get a good education, better yourself, only to discover that in the end, none of it saved him. In the end, he still winds up standing on his front porch with his wrists shackled, just like any drug dealer or carjacker anywhere.

Because sometimes, they just don’t see you. It’s one of the most frustrating verities of African-American life. Sometimes you simply know: they are looking your way but seeing their fears, their preconceptions, their stereotypes, that other black guy who did them wrong – everything except the one and only you.

By definition, racism denies individuality and preconceptions leave us blind, making it possible for even a man who leads diversity training to look at a small, graying scholar and see a menace to society.

If Gates was loud and agitated, common sense says Crowley should’ve simply removed the source of the agitation – himself. Problem solved.

Instead, he called for backup(!) and took Gates into custody. And if Gates looked like a lawbreaker to James Crowley, well, to me he looks like former Los Angeles Lakers star Jamaal Wilkes, pulled over because the tags on his car were “about to” expire, like clean-shaven, 6-foot-4 businessman Earl Graves Jr. detained by police searching for a mustachioed 5-foot-10 suspect, like Amadou Diallo, executed while reaching for his wallet.
And like me, with hands up and a rifle trained on my chest by an officer who later claimed he stopped me in that predominantly-white neighborhood for a traffic violation.

Because I look like Henry Louis Gates, he looks like Jamaal Wilkes, and we all look like some dangerous, predatory black man intent on mayhem. So there is no shock here – only a sobering reminder that the old canard is, at some level, true.

We all look alike.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at