The Privileged Professor (Or Why Skip Gates’ Arrest was not an Anomaly)

black-collegeRecently, I had an online conflict with someone who used the word “professor” as not only an insult but also a tool with which to render anything I said about oppression and policing illegitimate. As she reached a heated crescendo, she wielded the title to negate any work I have ever done as an advocate on these issues and to call me ignorant. She got away with this partially b/c of widespread anti-intellectualism on the internet and partially b/c of an erroneous sense of the ubiquitous nature of social capital afforded members of elite professions.

It would be wrong to argue that professors do not have a certain amount of social and economic capital in the world, or varying levels of power over student success and advancement, regardless of their other intersecting identities. However, the university is a hierarchical system in which any number of factors determine ones access to these various forms of capital, from type of college or university, to department, to position (adjunct, tenure track, tenure, etc.). This hierarchy is often reflected in the margins; meaning, women, people of color, and LBT women and QoC tend to be concentrated in less prestigious locations, positions, and programs. Moreover, professors from traditionally marginalized communities contend with identity based oppressions within the ranks and from some 8SKPA7HL2Ladmin assistants and students. If your positions are seen as diversity hires, there are many on all sides of the issue that will treat your position as somehow less than their own, either by using it to constantly praise their own diversity efforts or by negating your intelligence outright.

These are things outsiders, including students, do not often understand. They are also the things that many of us, especially in the academic blogosphere, deny or minimize. One needs only look at the discussion of Andy Smith’s tenure case in the Chronicle comment section to see proof of the disconnect between perception and reality. People excused away how her credentials exceeded stated requirements by saying “she’s famous so she’ll be fine” or “she’s a woman of color, there are probably ppl lining up to hire her.”  These myths of meritocracy coupled with the belief in “unfair” affirmative-action that is somehow hiring and GraduatesactingCuteretaining women, faculty of color, and GLBTQI professors hides the realities of marginalization, tenure denial, and consistent loss of diversity even as the graduate student diversity expands. Moreover, it prevents close examination of trends particularly prevalent in the tenure cases of WoC and QoC while allowing open and public dismissal of WoC and QoC scholars.

In this system, a black male department chair friend of mine has been accosted by police outside his office for being “unruly” and “suspicious” while having a heart attack. A Latina Dean colleague was asked to take the trash out of a classroom by law students who would later ask her to add in to that very course with innocent faces. A lesbian colleague was turned down for promotion twice at meetings that included conversations about her sexuality, her partner, and her “fit.” Another was criticized for demanding the university honor their spousal hire policy for her partner as if their commitment was less real than a heterosexual one. And I myself have been told “I don’t think the professor would like it if she saw you writing on the board before class” by students and criticized and removed from an important committee for not attending meetings in an inaccessible Lav Gradconference room in an inaccessible building after repeatedly providing my colleagues with disability awareness information. Our realities of oppression vary little from those of other workers in less privileged professions. Sadly, in some cases, our recourse is much less available in those same less privileged positions as well.

The further we get from the university, the less social capital many of us command. While many of us have the money to drive nice cars and own nice homes (or to drive any car and own any home for that matter) as well as the money for leisure activities, including nice restaurants and vacations, the traditional divisions between the white upper class and the rest of us, often means our presence in these spaces are ignored or disciplined. As one of my Caribbean American friends discovered when the fancy restaurant from which she had requested a group dining table kept her and her 10 international scholars visiting on a prestigious uni program waiting b/c they did not think these black and brown folk had a reservation. Or when Dean GQ and his partner were humiliated in 548705280_54643a1ac1front of an Asian job candidate, when they too arrived to claim their private room at a dinner and were seated in a dark, back, corner near the kitchen only to be told by a waiter during the meal that the owner was upset b/c “he held the private room for some professors for 2 hours and no one showed up.” Or when East Indian colleagues of mine were asked if they spoke English in front of a group of students at a local boutique and then refused service until all of the other patrons, most of them students from their small college, were served. A vietnamese colleague actually had her transaction stopped to serve a white male professor in the same small college town, and when both looked incredulous the shop owner replied “Oh, I’m sorry X is a professor and has a class, so I just wanted to get him out of here on time.” It never occurred to her that Y was a professor with a class as well. (The unearned class privilege that X received is also part of why all of us are seen to be privileged and why many of us are and most of us can be in the right setting.)

For many who teach in less prestigious or poorly funded universities, we generally do not have these policing encounters b/c unlike popular opinion we do not make enough money to be in them. Most of my colleagues struggle to pay for houses smaller than the apartment on Friends. They shop in the same low end stores and markets as students on financial aid. And I will always remember the conversations I had as junior faculty with other female faculty of color about how painful it is to not know if you can afford care for aging parents, or not see family because you cannot afford to travel or fly them in, or simply how, when they do come to visit, they’ll see the way you live and ask why you couldn’t become a nurse or a lawyer. At a public institution, the salaries are also public, and there are some Chairs of color making less than white male faculty in their first year at my institution.

Everyone I know has a story of being harassed by local police or campus police for transgressing the boundaries of “white professors” and “black criminals.” And almost everyone I know who teaches in small or homogeneous towns and cities 10-gates-450have experienced rental discrimination despite federal protections. At least one person I know bought a house with a deed that said the home could not be sold to people of color, though the times had changed, the neighbors had not. I even know two young male QoC professors who lived in a duplex with a single entrance in order to be safe from hostile confrontations with neighbors they had in town; they’ve since given up the jobs they loved for ones in a safer area of the country.

Stories of workplace and social marginalization abound amongst marginalized communities as well as in print. There are far too many anthologies about the social isolation, oppressions, and the stark realization for some that the rainbow is not enough. While many of us enjoy privileges others do not, these experiences stand in stark contrast to the social capital and the privileges afforded to our white, male, able-bodied, straight, tenured, and well-placed colleagues.

Yet, when I write posts like these, or I correct people like the comment maker who was able to convince an entire thread that I was guilty of any number of offenses I had not committed by simply calling me a privileged egghead (ie “professor” spit with enough venom to silence anyone willing to read the thread), people still deny it. And so, I bring you this story:

Henry Louis Gates Jr., esteemed Harvard professor and star of many widely televised documentaries on the black experience, was arrested at his Cambridge home on Thursday. He had arrived home some time earlier only to discover his front door had swollen in the heat while he was out of the country. He asked his cab driver to assist him in pushing the door, which he had already unlocked with his keys, open. An unidentified white female discovered a black man trying to enter an expensive home in an upper class neighborhood and called the police about a break in, in progress. She was so indignant about “these black criminals” in her midst, that she met the police at the house and marched up with them.

By the time police arrived, Skip was in his home unwinding after a long flight. Despite showing them both his driver license and his Harvard ID, police continued to imply he had no business being in his own house. When Skip got angry about the way they were treating him, they decided to book him on charges of “loud and tumultuous behavior.”  The “privileged” Harvard professor, was taken out of his house in cuffs in front of all of his neighbors and deposited in a jail cell.

In multiple interviews since, the police claimed they were the victims of an “angry black man.” His anger at being harassed and accused of criminality in his own home negated by the fact of his blackness.

The anti-justice justice argument, outlined on this blog before, is already ringing true for some readers at the Atlantic, who sean-bellhave already started arguing that Skip was in the wrong. Their excuses are perhaps more egregious b/c the Atlantic piece includes not only Skip’s experience but also that of another black Harvard professor stopped near campus in 2004 for resembling “a murder suspect”; the only resemblence was that they were the same color. When he failed to produce ID, it took white witnesses identifying him to end the confrontation. (As someone who was once recruited by Harvard with the warning that I should choose to live outside the city in black neighborhoods for “my own safety” I don’t doubt that these comment makers will be proven wrong by a bevvy of stories that will be told about other black faculty and student experiences with the police and their neighbors in the days to come.)

Similar conversations happened between me and white neighbors when I was held at gun point, and almost shot, by police officers responding to an alarm system malfunction at a relative’s home. I was in my pyjamas at the time, with a bad case of bedhead. My car was parked in the driveway inside the padlocked gate. When police arrived, I opened the door and they pulled their guns, screamed at me to stand still or be shot (even tho I was perfectly still) and then claimed they thought my driver’s license, which I was told to have out when they arrived by the alarm company, was “a gun.” Despite my pocketless “kiss me” 2006_12_qnsshootprot-799194tank-short set and slippers, they patted me down for weapons. Despite the placement of my car, they searched all through it for “stolen items and potential weapons” as if any criminal would be incompetent enough to drive up into a driveway, and then go back down and re-padlock the gate, then break into the home without their weapons. And even tho the alarm company called and told the police I would be in the house, I was added to the system as house sitter, and that I had provided the correct security code, they still searched every floor of the home and the grounds before putting their guns away. When I reached my hand out for my ID from the nearest officer, the other one pulled his gun again and said “Did I tell you could move?” He did not ask if I was a college professor and what discipline I teach.

To close, Voz claimed I had no right to speak about police brutality or about oppression in policing tactics in this country b/c I was a professor. She negated my work with incarcerated trans women of color b/c she assumed I had no affiliation to them or no experience of police brutality myself as a “privileged professor.” And she implied that I lied about my work b/c we academics have the privilege to not care about incarcerated women or women suffering under police brutality. At the same time she argued that as a “privileged professor, any knowledge I had about the police killing women of color was purely academic.

  • At no time when I was held at gunpoint by the police, did anyone ask me if I was a college professor.
  • At no time, when my friend was repeatedly questioned by police while having a heart attack, did police ask if he was a department chair.
  • At no time did police ask where Gates colleague worked when they accused him of murder; and worse, they refused to believe him when he did identify himself.
  • And at no time, did the police cuffing and arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr for daring to complain about being accused of being a burglar in his own home, show him an ounce of remorse because of where he worked

julianThese situations were not academic. They were not anomalies. Too many of us are in fact regular targets of police brutality and tho class certainly insulates faculty from many of the day-to-day harassment from the police, when they come for us, they are no less racist, sexist, transphobic, etc. While I cannot change the minds of either the people already moving to excuse away Skip’s arrest or the woman who erased my ordeal with her wrongheaded hyberbole all the while demanding an apology for my erasing her arrest record (which I never referenced & was never discussed in the thread), I hope that I can influence the rest of you to talk about this situation in terms of the larger issues of racial profiling, policing as a system of power and privilege not just “protection,” and alternatives to community safety that skipandmaggierespect the lives of all people.

As professors, we do have educational privilege. We have access to varying levels of economic privilege (both in terms of pay and job security). And none of us can deny how much privilege we are afforded in academic circles or places that acknowledge academic credentials (tho this too is mediated by where you work). What we do not have, not I @ lowly pov u  nor famous black scholars at prestigious universities, is the right to be protected from police brutality, workplace and societal oppression, or even to come home and think we are finally safe.


images (I used grad photos rather than fac photos b/c one needs only search google to see how “black professors” brings up images of naked women in cap & gown or other derogatory images that once again prove the differences in our privileges)

  • unattributed
  • LuCha graduation MIT/unattributed
  • graduation/Jen Kansanagi
  • Lavender Graduation UMN/unattributed
  • WS Graduation UCSB/clunk clunk @flickr
  • Gates in his office/unattribute
  • part of makeshift memorial for Sean Bell after police were acquitted of murdering him @ his bachelor party
  • protest of NYC Police brutality after murder of unarmed man/unattributed
  • newlywed Julian Alexander’s wife and baby remember him after police officer not charged for shooting him on his steps in pjs while responding to burglary call
  • Skip & Daughter Maggie/Alison Shaw

22 thoughts on “The Privileged Professor (Or Why Skip Gates’ Arrest was not an Anomaly)

  1. Thank you for your post. It highlights that while we may have keys to the ivory tower castle, we don’t hold as many as those with greater levels of privilege.

    It constantly amazes me that when people want to disagree with another, they insult and accuse, rather than attempting to engage in civil and intelligent discourse.

    • @ Think – welcome to the blog.

      @Melissa – welcome to the blog. I hope that past tense means you’ve moved onto a TT line or gained tenure. My partner was an adjunct for a long time & it is a dehumanizing experience.

      @missincognegro – yes. it’s hard to articulate both/and with regards to privilege, I’m glad it came across here.

      It constantly amazes me that when people want to disagree with another, they insult and accuse, rather than attempting to engage in civil and intelligent discourse.

      me too.

      • I believe this is the cause of the whole issue, becuase Gates insulted and accused the officer. If he would have just kept his trap shut, the officer would have done his job and left. Just like Obama should have kept his trap shut about the incident during the press conference on health care.

      • Welcome to the blog Noy. I know it would be easier to arrest and/or kill black folks if we would all just shut up about our rights, but sadly somebody has to stand up for our constitutionally granted rights and this time around its Skip.

        Seriously, look up the cases referenced through the images on this blog and then take some time to think about your own investment in white privilege. Happy thinking!

      • PS. thanks for the link to the actual police report. Not only is it helpful to read thru, but I also think it begs the question about how we analyze documents over contested events. Does an officer who knows he has arrested a Harvard professor, who has already said repeatedly he intends to sue, write an accurate report of events as required or does he create an embellished narrative to cover himself in an investigation or trial? I plan to put this question to my students in our methods class using this very example, and your link was invaluable in developing that assignment, so thanks again.

  2. I used to be a lowly adjunct (and still would be if the pay weren’t so impossible to live off of), so I was definitely at the bottom of that hierarchy, but I can definitely relate to so much of this. Excellent post!

  3. Pingback: Skip Gates arrested for being indignant in his own home! Historiann left peacefully to her own indignation. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  4. Pingback: Friday round-up: police state a-go-go, yee-haw! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  5. Pingback: on the gates incident « old money

  6. One other thing: The black elite, indeed black professionals, have a “Bigger Thomas” lurking right beneath that cool, calm, and collected exterior. These folks have borne the brunt of a great deal of racism–and profiling–in the American workplace and as they move around the social landscape of the American body politic. Gates has worked hard all of his life to get to a rarified place in American life, regardless of his ethnic background, and probably figured that a “white cop” could not and must not question him–particularly at his home. There are elements of race and class here and historical memory–one might even say Dred Scot light.

    And Gates–when the political tea leaves are read–is essentially standing alone because the calculus from the White House is that blacks will not raise hell in sufficient numbers to warrant an overdue discussion about race, racism, and more importantly a seething anger that I maintain is very much alive among Black-Americans.

    I understand Professor Gates’s less than Elizabethian respose to the police officer and, furthermore, as I said previously, it is indicative of repressed rage that a goood number of black professionals, indeed the elite, have to carry with then if they intend to make it through the day.

    Gates will back down because the president has signaled that this is what HE (the president) sees as the best course of action. None of this, of course, will lend itself to an honest and forthright discussion about race, racism, or racial profiling in this nation. To that end, blacks have learned a valuable lesson: a Harvard professor standing alone cannot possible take on organized police unions and law enforcement organizations–which, of course, includes folks of color. Until black folks learn to stand up for certain issues as a group, their testimony about racism and other critical matters in this country will continue to be dismissed.

    • This comment edited for clarity 7/24

      Yes racism is demoralizing no matter what other privileges you have. (For readers who may be less familiar with Bigger: one major difference between Skip and Bigger is that Bigger was guilty of violent crimes, Henry Louis Gates was not.) But, I do have to object to your assertion that Skip or any other black professional believe they should not be questioned by police, ie that they are above the law. Skip was not committing a crime when interrogated by police, he was relaxing in his own home after a long flight. NO ONE regardless of race or class (or any other identity) expects or consents to be called a criminal under these circumstances. It isn’t a matter of elitist investment in their own untouchability ala wallstreet ponzi schemers where no expects to get caught or if caught punished beyond a slap on the wrist, and where they are indignant at judgment of any kind. If we are going to talk about elitism and criminality, there actual criminals we could discuss. Black professionals mentioned in this post are not among them as they/we committed no crimes.

      I don’t know what was going thru Skip’s mind, but I’d agree that some believe class will trump race and that many resort to acts of privilege when feeling and/or being oppressed. We have to fins ways of talking about accountability that is both/and rather than either/or and resists the kind of flattening of a movie like Crash that omits institutional and historical oppressions in order to posit everybody is guilty, so no one is.

      While the President’s opinion matters, and he certainly dropped the ball in using this as an opportunity to discuss the complexities of institutional and “decision-making” (for lack of a better phrase) racism, two things make me disagree with you about his impact: 1. he cannot weather a storm in which the majority of white people think he is being “reverse racist” especially when pushing for health care, and 2. he is a moderate who wants to be liked. He tried to straddle the line and realized that when racism is involved there very seldom is a line a black man can straddle.

      I’m not a moderate. So Obama’s politik doesn’t really change the way I see the situation or am discussing it. I think a lot of people in public spaces are also having far more complex discussion than he.

      To me it’s kind of like when ppl ask about the latest thing Cosby said. He is a conservative and borderline apologist. What he says reflects those values but not all of black America or the ppl across racial lines engaged in complex conversations about race. For some Obama’s comments will shut discussion down or ratchet up racial animosity, I hope for most it will be one point in a list of many.

  7. I wandered here via Historiann’s place. This is an excellent, excellent post about the various incarnations of privilege and perception. Thank you.

    And, @ Noy, cops get verbally hassled ALL the time (that’s even assuming that Dr. Gates’ statements could be considered excessive, given he was being arrested for legally being in his own home…). Cops don’t arrest everyone who mouths off at them. The correct response was, “Glad no one was robbing your place. Have a nice day.” If Gates had physically assaulted or threatened him, that’d be different. But he DIDN’T. Gah.

    • welcome to the blog digger. Yes, I would imagine police endure a considerable amount of verbal abuse in their day and yet don’t arrest everyone for it. I’d also imagine that cops that don’t act out racially hate cops who do b/c it increases that amount or at least the amount of ppl unwilling to cooperate with police or view them with suspicion, making their jobs that much harder.

      Ultimately, everyone is hurt by racist cops.

  8. the final comment by susurro above about relying on a potentially biased document as an accurate account of events is EXACTLY what I have been thinking…and have failed to see anyone mention anywhere about this incident.

    2 things made me think of this:

    1/ I often watch Judge Judy and she often refers to police reports of accidents as if they are divine missives whispered directly in her ear. JJ seems incapable of accepting that a police officer’s report might be inaccurate, might not record all the pertinent information, and might be rife with bias of some sort.

    2/ My mother recently settled a lawsuit after a car accident that involved her lawyer getting access to all of her medical records. The massive number of inaccuracies and blatant lies (usually making the doctor appear unaccountable for errors in diagnosis) were shocking.

    In a world where I have had to fail college students for their inability to write coherently or accurately who then get a diploma a semester later really makes me wonder if the people we all depend on to report important matters in an official capacity are actually doing that job how we need them to do it. And I won’t even go into the fears I have about people who are nested withing their own ideological bubbles of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, fundamentalism, etc.

    It’s all so depressing.

    • welcome to the blog Cassandra. Yes, this is why good research triangulates their sources. In real life, of course, confronting the word of ppl who have been granted societal power is much harder. (This by the way is why I argued we faculty have privilege just that the privilege is mediated along the intersecting fault lines of oppression.)

    • welcome to the blog Boston resident. Please read the post. Gates upset is not in dispute. His arrest was on a discretionary charge & those charges as well as the police report are in dispute. (In the future, your critique belongs in your comment not also placed in a fake email address that only I can read – read the post on trolls if you are confused.)

  9. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

  10. Very informative blog post here. I just wanted to stop by and thank you for taking the time out of your very busy day to write this. I’ll be back to read more in the future as well.

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