Even before the charges were dropped Tuesday, I knew in my bones that this situation was about the level of deference that a white cop expects from a black man. According to his own written report, this officer understood that he was dealing with a lawful resident of the house when he made the arrest and was no longer concerned about the report of a “burglary in progress” involving “two black males.” No, by this point we’re talking about something else entirely.
Maybe this situation had something to do with Harvard University and social class. It is possible that one element of what happened involved a policeman with working-class roots who faced an opportunity to “level the playing field” with a successful Harvard professor. But even if class mattered, it did so mostly because of how, in this situation, it was bound up with race.
Imagine: An influential man, in his home, is ordered to step outside by a policeman. Naturally, he asks “Why?” or perhaps “Who are you?” The officer says words to the effect of, “I’m responding to a burglary report. Step outside now!”
To which our confident man says, “No. This is my house. I live here. I work for the university, and the university manages this property.” The officer demands identification. “Fine,” our resident says, and he retrieves his state and university IDs.
The officer now knows he is dealing with a legitimate resident. Does he ask, “Is everything all right, sir? We had a report of a burglary.” No. Does he say, “I’m sorry, sir, if I frightened you before. We had a report of a burglary, and all they said was ‘Two black men at this address.’ You can understand my concern when I first got to the house.”
No, he didn’t do that. He also could have walked away. But he didn’t do that either.
This officer continued to insist that my friend step outside, where several other police officers waited. By now, it is clear to my friend that this officer has, well, an “attitude problem.” So, as I suspect other influential, successful Americans in this situation would do, my friend says, I want your name and badge number.
The cop says nothing sensible in response. The request for the officer’s name and badge number is pressed again. No response. Social scientists have plenty of data showing that African Americans across the social-class spectrum are deeply distrustful of police. The best research suggests that this perception has substantial roots in direct personal encounters with police that individuals felt were discriminatory or motivated by racism. But this perception of bias also rests on a shared collective knowledge of a history of discriminatory treatment of blacks by police and of social policies with built-in forms of racial bias (i.e., stiffer sentences for use of crack cocaine than powder).
In the age of Obama, however, with all the talk of post-racial comity, you might have thought that what happened to Skip Gates was an impossibility. Even the deepest race cynic — picture comedian Dave Chappelle in the movie “Undercover Brother” — couldn’t predict such an event. But when I moved into the same affluent area that Gates lives in, I wondered whether someone might mistakenly report me, a black man, for breaking into my own house in a largely white neighborhood and how I might prove that the house actually belonged to me.
I joked to my wife that maybe I should keep a copy of the mortgage papers and deed in the front foyer, just in case.
I do now. And it is no longer a joke.
There is a larger lesson here about racial bias and misuse of discretion by police that still, all too often, works against blacks, especially poor blacks. If Skip can be arrested on his front porch, then there but for the grace of God goes every other black man in America. That is one sad statement, and it should be enough to end all this post-racial hogwash.
Maybe events will prove my cynicism and anger unwarranted. Perhaps the officer involved will be fully held to account. Perhaps Skip will hear the apology he so richly deserves. Perhaps a review of training, policy and practice by police in my fair city and many others will move us closer to a day of bias-free policing. But if you’re inclined to believe all that will happen, I’ve got a shiny new post-racial narrative I’d be happy to sell.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the social sciences at Harvard University.