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Harvard Students, Professors Eye Racial Factors in Gates' Arrest

By Peter F. Zhu, Crimson Staff Writer

Allegations of racial profiling continued to mount after the arrest of prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. last week, but students and faculty interviewed Tuesday were cautious about leveling blame, even while acknowledging the possibility of police misconduct.

"It's definitely questionable," said Mackenzie J. Lowry '11, who is working as a mentor in Cambridge for the summer. "Situations like these are difficult to comment on when you don't know the entire story. But I certainly hope this wasn't a racially based situation. If it was...there needs to be disciplinary action taken against the people who humiliated this renowned professor."

Gates, an African American studies professor who has earned 50 honorary degrees for his work and is arguably Harvard's most renowned black scholar, was arrested last Thursday at his home for disorderly conduct. Police reports and statements from Gates' lawyer suggest that police officers, investigating a tip of a possible break-in at Gates' Cambridge home, got into a confrontation with the 58-year-old professor, who was returning home from a trip to China and forced his way through a jammed front door with a car driver's help.

Cambridge authorities and prosecutors agreed to drop the charge on Tuesday, saying that the incident was "regrettable and unfortunate" but not one that should be viewed as demeaning to the "character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department."

Nevertheless, Spencer H. Hardwick '11, president of the Black Students Association and also a Crimson news writer, said that "the situation clearly requires an investigation into the motives of the officers involved and the policies and procedures of the Cambridge Police Department" in order to "prevent further incidents of arbitrary and unfair treatment against innocent citizens." He said that his organization has opened a dialogue with the University administration to explore how the BSA could help address these issues.  [CORRECTION APPENDED]

Students interviewed were wary of passing judgment on police or the professor without more definitive information, but several said that the professor had been treated unfairly. Kyle A. Martin '11, a proctor at Harvard for the summer, said "it certainly would appear to me to be some sort of racial bias against Professor Gates exhibited by the police officer." And Amaka C. Uzoh '11, an intern at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, said that she sympathized with Gates and that he did not deserve to face charges from police.

"Those actions definitely have a racial precedent," Uzoh said. "It's not uncommon, it has even happened to me in California." She added that in the past, she and her parents have been pulled over while driving for police questioning about how they obtained their vehicle. "Black men especially are sometimes questioned by police unnecessarily," Uzoh said.

Faculty in the department of African and African American Studies interviewed Tuesday commented more explicitly about the persistence of racial profiling in American society, noting that the police actions were indicative of a lapse of communication and racial understanding plaguing much of the country.

"This is not all that surprising that this would happen to an African American man, and even to somebody of Skip Gates' stature," said James H. Sidanius, a psychology and African American studies professor whose area of study includes institutional discrimination and group conflict. "These things happen all too often, where African Americans are disproportionally stopped by police more than others, disproportionally detained for arrest, and disproportionately found guilty and sentenced to prison."

Sidanius said he believes the incident should have stopped when Gates provided the officer with his Harvard identification and driver's license as proof that he lived in the home, and "the fact it went beyond that is unsettling."

Walter Johnson, another African American studies professor, wrote in an e-mailed statement that the charge of disorderly conduct in one's own home was absurd and that "the structure of ideas and institutions which render such action commonsensical in this society are appalling." And Michèle Lamont, a sociology and African American studies professor who specializes in American race relations, called the arrest "egregious" and said that the incident helped expose the need for broader racial dialogue not only within the Harvard community but also in the broader Cambridge area.

Lamont noted that "Boston is not reputed to have perfectly warm interracial relationships."

The University has grappled with racial profiling issues a few times in recent years, although those cases involved the Harvard University Police Department, not the Cambridge Police Department. Last summer, HUPD officers, in a confrontation allegedly "laced with obscenities," approached a young black man attempting to remove a lock from a bicycle who turned out to be a Boston area high school student working at the University for the summer. The incident helped trigger a University task force review of community and police relations, and prompted HUPD to reach out to the community, drawing praise from black student organizations.

Gates spoke publicly to a few media outlets on Tuesday for the first time since the arrest, framing his experience as part of a "racial narrative" in a biased criminal justice system and reprimanding the police officer for having a "broad imagination" in filing his report. Police accounts say that Gates was uncooperative and loud when questioned by police, yelling "[t]his is what happens to black men in America" and telling the police officer "[y]ou don't know who your [sic] messing with."

Not everyone reflecting on the incident immediately concurred that the arrest exemplified on-going societal prejudices. Gates' lawyer, law school professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., has declined to say whether he believes the incident was racially motivated, and Cambridge police representatives carefully kept to their prepared statement, which said that the dropping of charges was "a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances."

Damaris J. Taylor '12, alumni and public relations chair for the Harvard Black Students Association, said that based on police reports, he personally didn't think the arrest was racially motivated and that "the officer was just doing his job." But he also said that while the professor may have overreacted or even acted rudely, the police should not have issued an arrest.

Harvard President Drew G. Faust said in a statement Tuesday that she continues to be "deeply troubled by the incident," although she is gratified that the charges have been dropped. She added that "legacies of racial injustice remain an unfortunate and painful part of the American experience" and that "we can and must do better." [CLARIFICATION APPENDED]

—Molly M. Strauss contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.

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