Barbarians at the Gates: What does scholar’s arrest really say about race in America?

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About the author: Byron C. Tau is a journalism graduate student at Georgetown and a recent graduate of McGill University in Montreal. You can find him all over the Internet, from his politics and commentary website Heartless and Brainless to his Twitter account to his personal blog. His favorite topics tend to be civil liberties issues, freedom of speech issues, anti-nanny state stuff and hating on the Canadian political system. He also likes to cover the “game” of Washington politics and the usual inside politics process stuff.

The arrest of noted Harvard African-American scholar and The Root co-founder Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spread like wildfire across the blogosphere this week. Today, there are a few additional updates. First, the Smoking Gun obtained and posted the actual arrest report. Second, Slate enlisted the help of the ACLU in explaining away a lot of the charges made against Gates by the Cambridge police. And finally, last night’s prime time press conference on health care saw President Obama delicately wading into the issue in his last press answer, stating:

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.

The story is fraught with political and policy significance on so many levels that it’s no surprise that it spread so quickly. Washington is debating the confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court associate justice — the same woman who has sparked a firestorm of conservative commentary concerning her judicial decision about affirmative action in New Haven and her comments regarding the jurisprudence of a “wise Latina” being better than a white male. Some commentators pointed out that the arrest happened just as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece saying that race-based affirmative action had to be abolished. Finally, the arrest happened the same week that CNN had been scheduled to run a special with Soledad O’Brien entitled Black in American 2. The political irony is almost palpable and seems to beg the question: does being black in America mean being arrested for disorderly conduct on your own front porch after getting a little miffed?

First, it’s pretty clear that the police acted inappropriately — at least if Gates’ version of the story is to be believed in its entirety. As Slate pointed out, it is a requirement that Massachusetts police show ID when asked. Second, a disorderly conduct charge in the state usually refers to conduct that will spark a riot. Blowing your cool on your front porch hardly seems to endanger polite civil society. Finally, as the Slate Explainer pointed out, getting upset and shouting at a police officer about being racially profiled is about as explicitly political as you can be — and thus count as protected speech under the first amendment.

But if it’s true that the Cambridge police acted foolishly and probably illegally, it could be equally true that this arrest says very little about the overall state of race relations in America or the many public policy debates surrounding it. As President Obama pointed out, racial profiling is a problem across America. I see it everyday in my Washington D.C. neighborhood. But at the same time, does the arrest of one prominent scholar in Massachusetts really negate Douthat’s point that perhaps affirmative action has run its course? Is one anecdotal case in one Massachusetts city really emblematic of the struggles of a whole race of people?

Race in America is a touchy subject, still. The latest Internet meme from today refers to a prominent AMA physician accused of forwarding racist photoshopped caricatures of President Obama as a witch doctor. It’s currently the lead story on Talking Points Memo. What these incidents do reveal is an American public hungry for a frank conversation on race and a media class only perfectly willing to oblige with stale, simplistic race-baiting. What they don’t reveal is a racist, bigoted society rotten to the core.

The rise of Americans like Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and others is more than just the tokenism that Martin Luther King Jr. warned Americans to avoid when talking about race. Women comprise a solid majority of college graduates at convocations every spring, and their salaries in major urban areas amongst unmarried, childless women are higher than men in almost all the major urban areas. The President of the United States is an African-American, who garner 66.8 million votes — 8.5 million more than his white, American male rival. Prior to his election, the previous two top foreign policy makers in the Bush Administration were both prominent and well-credential black Americans. There is a large and well-heeled black middle class in this country — one often marginalized in popular culture depictions of urban life media stereotypes and hip-hip rags-to-riches glory stories.

It does us no favors as a society to turn an unfortunate incident at Cambridge into a microcosm for all of American society. There is ample evidence for real and sustained racial progress, and America has mostly moved beyond some of the baser prejudices that haunted her for centuries. There are some barriers to achievement still, just as there are some opportunities for those of any skin color, gender or creed. Just as the election of one African-American hasn’t made racism disappear, the arrest of another hasn’t brought it back in vogue.