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By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.


Friday, July 31, 2009.

Most accounts of the recent arrest of Prof Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for disorderly conduct have described the 58-year-old Harvard scholar as the pre-eminent black scholar in the America—a leading public intellectual. Gates is loosely aligned with a particular generation of black public intellectuals like Cornel West, Bell Hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, Patricia J. Williams, and Manning Marable who came to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s—paragons of a contemporary American “thinking” class.

While many of these public intellectuals engaged a representational politics that interrogated the realities in which race, gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity are lived within American society, Professor Gates took the concept of a “marketplace of ideas” at face value; his “public” was rarely discrete from the marketplace. He boldly proclaimed that he was an intellectual entrepreneur and branded the field of Black Studies, much like Russell Simmons helped brand hip-hop and Barack Hussein Obama successfully branded himself as “change.”


Few of us at elite institutions can claim that we haven’t benefited from Professor Gates’ entrepreneurial vision for the field of Black Studies.

According to a
statement by his attorney—the equally prominent Harvard legal scholar Charles Ogletree—Gates had returned home from a trip to China where he was working on a documentary for PBS. Upon his return Gates found that his front door was jammed and after entering his home from the rear, turning off the alarm, Gates with the help of his driver jarred open the front door. Shortly thereafter Gates observed a police officer in his doorway who preceded to tell Gates that he was investigating a burglary.


What ensued afterward is up for debate with the officer claiming in his report that Gates was belligerent, among other things, and that Gates at one point told the officer he would follow him outside to “see his mama.”


That the officer implies that Professor Gates used language more appropriate for a Blaxploitation character from 35 years ago suggest that neither individual was doing much listening in this exchange. That said, few would begrudge Professor Gates’ rage or anyone else’s for that matter, in response to the questioning his right to be in his own home. The randomness of the officer’s assault on Professor Gates’ civil rights challenges claims that his privilege might protect him in such cases.

Though Professor Gates might be unknown to the average viewer of BET, in the parlance of his profession he is easily one of the most recognizable “Negroes” on the planet. That he is legitimately the most well known black person at Harvard University and Cambridge at large is beyond dispute. That any Cambridge police officer would not recognize Professor Gates or adhere to the confirmation by campus police that the figure he was arresting was indeed Professor Gates raises obvious suspicions—yet another iteration of the “uppity Negro” backlash that has reached a fever pitch in the Obama era.


Thus Professor Gate’s charge of racism, in light of a Cambridge, MA police officer accosting him in his own home strikes a particular chord. Never given to the professional machinations comprising contemporary race politics—he’s been more Ralph Bunche than Malcolm X—Professor Gates’ response to the officer’s actions is so out of character that those familiar with the scholar’s professional profile would have to assume that the officer had crossed some line. Indeed the Cambridge police thought so also; the charges against Professor Gates were dropped.

But the attention that the case has attracted raises more troubling issues about which black bodies really matter. Few blacks—and fellow black scholars for that matter—are fortunate to have Charles Ogletree on their speed dial; or edit an
online magazine in collaboration with The Washington Post and Newsweek Magazine. Indeed Antwi Akom, a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at San Francisco State University didn’t have such a profile when he was arrested in front of his campus office in October of 2005 while retrieving books.

Without asking for or allowing Professor Akom to produce his campus ID, the officer arrested him while his children sat in his car. Professor Akom was formally charged with resisting arrest. Campus administration remained silent about the case, though the charges were eventually dropped months later. Professor Akom’s case didn’t generate the kind of attention that the Gates case has, but Professor Akom benefited from a network of scholars and activists who spoke out about a clear case of racial profiling and Professor Akom’s unimpeachable reputation. What’s to be said though, for those folk for which such experiences range from a regular nuisance to real incidences of terror and death, far too frequent to even document?

This was a point that was made by one of my former students who upon hearing about Gates arrest, the former student joked that perhaps Gates should have been “carrying those DNA results from African American Lives when he found out he was 67% white.” As the former student, currently a teacher in New York City, further explained “if you put an officer in a position where they can be helpful, by answering their questions and asking for assistance, it can defuse a very tense situation…The louder you get the more you resemble Raekwon Jenkins and the closer you get to jail. Be compliant and if you still feel like you were wronged then file a complaint later.”


His points are well taken and a product of the common sense logic that is developed within the context of a world where the kind of confrontation that Gates had is so commonplace. Call it every day survival instincts. Our concerns should reflect the regularity of such abuse, not just the selective outrage that befits those of more privilege.


Dr Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. An author of several books including the recent New Black Man, Neal is a regular contributor to
The Root.com and SeeingBlack.com.


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