derek bell

Home » derek bell

A few more thoughts on Professor Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates

This is a continuation of the discussion that I started earlier this week. Most of this grew out of the accusations that President Barack Obama is a racist because of a video which shows him both introducing and hugging Harvard professor Derek Bell. The discussion got off into the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. I would like to continue that discussion here.

For some reason, in this country, we have an ethnocentric idea that everybody needs to act the same. Actions that deviate from the norm are abnormal and need to be suppressed. My friend, who has stringently argued his point, reveals a critical flaw in his thinking. (Let me add that my friend is highly educated. I’m shocked that he didn’t know who Henry Louis Gates was. I hope that he will find the time to read some of his many books while we are carrying on this discussion.) In his comment, he reverts to saying what he would do if confronted by the police. The discussion isn’t about what he would do or what any White man would do. Instead, this discussion has to do with the criminality and the legitimacy of an arrest of a Black man in his own home. Phrases like “he was looking for it” completely ring hollow with me.

Let’s go over the facts that are not disputed. Henry Louis Gates broke into his own home. A neighbor, concerned, called the police. The police arrived after Prof. Gates had gained access to his own home. They asked for identification and the professor provided two forms of ID. Now, from this point on, all other actions, in my mind, were moot. The police were there to verify that he had not broken into somebody else’s home. The police had at this point verified that he was in fact Henry Louis Gates. Both IDs had pictures on them, and they verified his assertion that he lives in that house. Discussion over. End of story. “Thank you for your time, Prof. Gates. I’m sorry to bother you.” That’s it. Anything else was superfluous and unnecessary.

From the Massachusetts Lawyer Weekly:

In order to secure a disorderly conduct conviction, the prosecution would have to show three things:

1. That Gates engaged in fighting, threatening, violent or tumultuous behavior or created a hazardous condition by an act that served no legitimate purpose;
2. That Gates’ actions were reasonably likely to affect the public; and
3. That the defendant either intended to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, alarm or recklessly created a risk of public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.

In 1976, the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Richards held that the law cannot be applied to a defendant’s language, even if it is offensive and abusive, unless it constitutes “fighting words which by their very utterance tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

While the report refers to Gates’ conduct as “loud and tumultuous,” there does not appear to be anything there that would allow for a conclusion that they were “fighting words.”

So, we’re left with the question of whether the arrest of Henry Louis Gates was just. Please tell me.

I’d like to spend just a couple more seconds talking about something else that happened which was associated with this incident. Do you remember an e-mail that was circulated from a Boston police officer? Justin Barrett sent an e-mail to the Boston Globe which reveals how race is such an important part of our society. Officer Barrett was responding to a column written by Yvonne Abraham of the Globe in which he states, “for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.” (His hate-filled e-mail can be found here.) What causes a man to write something like this? He said in an interview that he was not a racist. Okay? What causes a man who thinks he is not a racist to write such a blatantly racist e-mail? I think that this is important. This man was no martyr. He did not write this e-mail and think that he was going to be suspended and then fired. He thought he was doing the right thing. He thought he was doing the right thing by telling off that reporter. When we read the whole e-mail, it becomes apparent that it was not only about race, but it was about power. It was about how people are supposed to react to the police. It was about respect.

To me, this whole discussion is about respect and opportunity. All Americans want is to be respected and have the opportunity to provide for their families. That’s it. This whole discussion of women’s rights and Sandra Fluke is about respect and opportunity. Over the next several days I will continue to talk about race (Jeff, I promise I will be getting back to your comments, promise…) and how opportunities are widely available to some but extremely limited for others. What are your thoughts?

By |2012-04-05T20:48:57-04:00March 13th, 2012|Legal, Race|Comments Off on A few more thoughts on Professor Henry Louis Gates

What Some of Us Simply Don’t Understand about Race in America

It seems to me that recently I’ve been talking about race a lot. There are some people in our society who live smack dab in White suburbia. They don’t see race as an issue. They look at race as something that is a throwback from the 1950s and 1960s. They look at civil rights legislation, affirmative action and other measures as having “fixed” the race problem. The recent uproar over deceased Harvard Law professor Derek Bell is an excellent example of how some folks don’t understand, refuse to understand the depth of the race problem in the United States. Race has infused every bit of our society. Sure, we would like to think that everyone has equal opportunities. We would like to think that everyone in the United States has the ability to grow up and be Barack Obama. The fact is that simply isn’t true.

Back in 1999, a 23-year-old New Guinea immigrant named Amando Diallo died in front of his own apartment complex in a hail of police bullets. This unarmed man looked “suspicious,” which caused the police to shoot 41 times. The police officers were acquitted. My question is whether this young man, had he been an Italian immigrant or an Irish immigrant, would he be alive today?

Traymon Martin

Yesterday, I posted a tragic story about Trayvon Martin. He was a 17-year-old male who was watching the NBA All-Star game with his father. At halftime, he walked down the street to get some snacks at the corner convenience store. On the way back, he was confronted by a neighborhood watchman (a vigilante). Somehow, a confrontation ensued and Mr. Martin was shot and killed. How does this happen? If Trayvon had been White, would he be alive today? Did the tension that continues to exist between Whites and Blacks contribute to a gross misunderstanding? Did George Zimmerman see Trayvon Martin as a young high school student or as some opportunistic, hip-hop washout in baggy jeans? One of the lingering questions in this tragic case is why George Zimmerman is not in jail. If the situation were reversed, if George Zimmerman was walking in a Black neighborhood and he was shot and killed by a Black neighborhood watchman, would that neighborhood watchman have been arrested on the scene?

Eric Perez

Eric Perez was an 18-year-old arrested back in July for possessing a small amount of marijuana. By all accounts, he walked into jail as a healthy young man. Several hours later, he was dead. He died of head injuries. He spent most the night “hallucinating vomiting soiling himself and seeking help from guards who ignored him.” How does this happen in a colorblind society? As a trauma surgeon, I work with prisoners all the time. I’ve seen prisoners brought to the ER and admitted to the hospital with significant injuries and also with minor injuries. How do you let an 18 year old die without medical attention?

When you grow up in the United States as a person of color, you hear the stories. You know people who’ve been arrested for no particularly good reason. You know people who’ve been followed by the police because they were “in the wrong neighborhood.” Hell, when I was at Emory University in Atlanta, during the early ’80s, I got to know a lot of the guys on the Emory police force. Why? If I was walking on campus after 10 PM, it was not uncommon for me to get a police escort. I would just be followed. So, after being followed several times, I decided that I would go and introduce myself. I would go talk to them. Before you knew it, they would start following me and then recognize who I was. They knew that I was a student on campus. I would wave at them and they would wave at me and they would move on. The point is that you shouldn’t have to get to know the police in order not to be bothered.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, highlights a lot of the inequities that we see in the criminal justice system. For me, the tragedy is that the criminal justice system, more than anywhere else in society, is supposed to be colorblind. It isn’t. When we combine this information with what we saw in the PBS special, Slavery by Another Name, we begin to formulate a picture of the criminal justice system. This system, which is supposed to be colorblind, is instead rigged against minorities. So, as you’re sitting in White suburbia, it’s easy for you to type on your HP computer that Derek Bell is a racist. I was sent the following tweet a couple days ago: @ecthompsonmd I’ve listened. [to Derrick Bell’s speeches] When one views every societal economic & political event through the lens of race & us v. them, it’s racist. In my opinion, this tweet reveals ignorance of a complex problem that still persists in our society. Race does infuse every aspect of our society. Is it better today than it was 20 or 40 years ago? Yes. But we still have a long way to go.

By |2012-03-10T13:38:07-04:00March 10th, 2012|Race|12 Comments
Go to Top