When Harvard Professors Write Back

Giant_Beer_GlassAt least two members of the faculty at Harvard have weighed in publicly on the Skip Gates arrest in articles written for the Chronicle and the Crimson, Harvard’s paper.  Both women Lani Guinier from the Law School and Ruth R. Wisse from Comp Lit,  have taken a critical eye to the incident in question and reached far different conclusions.

Lani Guinier critiqued the instant of the officer’s arrival as a moment stuck in time in which both parties relied on antiquated racial narratives to assess a modern day racial moment. I am always deeply concerned when people say that our perceptions of race are filtered through past egregious acts because it implies linguistically, especially to racial apologists and deniers, that racism is a thing of the past. For many readers, Guinier’s seeming confirmation of this belief in the first few paragraphs will be more than enough to confirm their own disbelief in what happened to Gates and they will not move on to her more substantive argument in the rest of the piece. Her main thesis is that racism is both a thing of the past and a spectre of the present and that policing is a key component of inequality in our nation. She goes on to argue that we must become more competent in discussing the specifics of race and racism in order to challenge these moments in which perception matters more to those who choose not to believe than evidence. (read the piece here.)

The other article, by Wisse, blames Gates, not for flashing back to a “long gone moment in racial history”, but for failing to appropriately code switch. She states that had Gates simply engaged in linguistic passing, he would have negated the ways in which he was criminalized. Could code switching have prevented his arrest? Possibly. Neither I nor Darlene Clark Hine were arrested in similar encounters with the police b/c we handled things differently; tho we are also both black women whose criminality, as Nancy Lopez’s well documented study of engendered policing in NYC points out, is read differently than black and brown men. Others have been shot by police while being equally unobtrusive: Sean Bell and Amadu Diallo come to mind.  Or if, as some black intellectuals have argued, comparisons between working class African Americans and “privileged professors” are not appropriate, perhaps the story of an African American pundit filling in on MSNBC last week (name unconfirmed) who was not only arrested for the same thing as Gates but sued the department for discrimination and won or the story of SFSU Professor Akom who was arrested for picking up books on campus while black, both of whom report having behaved in a reasonable manner at the time of arrest, are more “equal” comparisons. (For me, any unjust arrest or shooting is part of the same narrative of racialized policing that varies according to other intersecting identities and privileges rather than mutually exclusive concepts, see my post “the privileged professor” for more.) If none of these ring particularly salient for readers, there is also the recent case of Omer Edwards, a black police officer shot and killed by white police officers responding to his call for assistance with a burglar and the subsequent revelation that police officers of color are often wrongly mis-identified as criminals when out of uniform. So the idea that demeanor is the overwhelming factor in Gates arrest ignores a history of policing in this country still prevalent today that punished black bodies on the basis of discretionary acts and often exonerates police officers regardless of situation or lethality.

Is it, as Wisse argues, the responsibility of a man being asked to step outside to discuss his attempted burglary of his own home to defer to the feelings of the police (especially feelings that many of us argue are rooted in racialist thinking)? Hardly. Placing the onus on Gates to be subservient in such a situation relies on multiple readings of the situation that negate its historic and present day import and the accountability of any other parties involved. In this scenario where Gates actions are the beginning and end of a situation in which a man is arrested for being angry about being called a burglar, Gates becomes hyper-subject, or object upon which varies forms of societal policing are projected, while the subjecthood, and very presence, of all others is completely erased.

Worse, Wisse, like many others looking at the situation, seems to eschew her own linguistic training to assume that the police report, written by the officer who has already been threatened with a lawsuit for racial profiling prior to writing it up, is a completely unbiased and totally factual piece of evidence. She takes various comments Gates is said to have made as fact while negating any comments or actions that Officer Crowley is said to have made through their erasure from her Op Ed piece. She also cites the “liberal” nature of Cambridge as another reason to believe police have not been and are not guilty of unequal treatment. The fact that Cambridge is a “liberal town” is not a credible indicator of police behavior, as racially motivated shootings and harassment have occurred in both “liberal” and “conservative” towns around this country. Moreover, several black Harvard professors have spoken out about their own treatment by the police, publicly or in closed conversation, and as a Harvard professor Wisse should be well aware of some of the more recent locally publicized incidents. What allows her then to link liberal identity with racial equality is an overarching narrative in the U.S. that assumes, without research or evidence, that liberalism negates racism. We in Identity Studies Departments no better; and I assumed most well-trained linguists did as well since this belief hinges on the manipulation of language and meaning. (read the piece here)

What is most interesting about this turn of events to me, is that Skip has become the villain in a story in which he did nothing but come home, try to get into his own house, and then get angry at being accused of being called a burglar. He is the villain not only to racially antagonistic media pundits who one expects to link him into their vast conspiracy theory of the takeover of America by black men, but also his own neighbors:

racecardsignskipsign outside Skip’s house claiming he is “playing the race card”

groundlessracismsignsign outside Skip’s house claiming he is causing racial division

And now, his colleagues have begun to weigh in as “concerned” citizens who think he undermined the Cambridge police, who by all reports have done this before and will likely, based on the tide turning and their own indignation, do it again. (see my previous post for an example of another black Harvard professor harassed by police while on campus.) In the larger academic community, questions of how this incident will enhance his book sales or get him new contracts have already begun to creep up, even amongst the most liberal of faculty/bloggers.

A colleague and I were talking about the postering of Skip’s house a few days ago, and she said “Well it looks like Cornell will get his way.” She was referring to the public attrition of black faculty from Harvard due to what many believe was a different standard for black faculty’s presence on campus than that of white faculty of similar fame and research commitments. This conflict, which was a lead story in many newspapers and news magazines, one even had an illustration of Skip, Cornell, and Jesse Jackson’s heads pasted on babies bodies outside of Harvard’s gates, was also prompted by perceptions of race and racism and an overarching narrative that included multiple sides behaving badly at one point or another. Instead of addressing larger issues like: how R1s operate with regards to research and publishing  and the cultures they foster with regards to faculty opinion of teaching or how perceptions of race play into the criticisms of similar behavior amongst diverse faculty, or even how certain institutions rely on the public face of their scholars, the issue narrowed solely to the specific behaviors of the faculty in question. Like the narrative about Skip’s attitude at arrest, the discussion revolved around Cornell’s appearance in film and music videos and the larger structural issues fell by the wayside.

update: When my friend said Skip would likely be leaving Harvard soon as a result of all of this, I disagreed. For me, I was much more concerned about the what people attacking Gates’ house might do next, and according to the Daily Beast, so was Harvard who allegedly suggested Skip move. He has already had to change his email and phone number, similar to an African American professor at Emory, the Harvard of the South, who outed a colleague’s use of the N word and then was threatened and harassed via email and phone, and at her home. Naively, I thought that while Harvard’s silence on the arrest issue was telling, Skip was too much of an asset to allow politics to get in the way of retaining him. I hope that I am right, as his loss will be yet another message about how race works to make us “privileged professors” less safe than our colleagues in our own working environments and homes. And as Herbert argues in the NYT, this message has now gone national through Obama’s unwillingness to use the “teachable moment” he so intelligently recognized while thinking he could side step the issue with a quick comment and a beer summit. While some learned from this that Obama is a moderate, others learned that even the President of the United States will be disciplined for breaching acceptable wisdom on policing and race in N. America. If Skip leaves Harvard that message will ring louder than the many tenure denial cases to faculty of color and the people who continue to deny their experiences.

I know some will have already or will soon note that the second author mentioned is white while the former is African American. In an interesting contrast to Wisse’s opinion, the former Chair of the English Department at Duke, who was on Skip’s hiring committee there, has also written an article in which he talks about the societal racism that Skip endured at Duke and in Durham as proof that racism is alive and well on college campuses and in college towns. His story highlights Skip’s larger than life personality (which anyone who has ever encountered him would be hard pressed to deny) without placing onus there. He, a white male, understands that while failing to step and fetch places you closer and more often in the path of danger, danger itself is not your fault nor your responsibility. It’s similar to an argument most feminists recognize: if a woman wears a short skirt to a party, she does not deserve to be raped. If she is sexually-assaulted she has every right to be angry.

A beer, imported or otherwise, will not solve racial tensions in this country.

Open and honest conversation in which people check themselves before they start checking each other is the only way we will move forward. Part of that checking requires a profound cognitive leap toward “disloyalty to whiteness“, the concept of racial privilege as normal and deserved, in this country. Derrick Bell, another former Harvard professor who left over discrimination, once argued that for whiteness to succeed people had to invest in a narrative in which people of color’s criminality went unquestioned and the investment permeates our culture regardless of your actual politics. As long as people are looking for perfect victims – ie people who, as the Crimson author argues, speak in “a white voice” and are “appropriately” deferential and grateful – and negate those who are – like Sean Bel,l going out on to his own porch in his jammies, or Omer Edwards, in pursuit of the real criminal and approaching fellow officers to brief them – we will never be able to have those discussions. Without them, things will never change.

10 thoughts on “When Harvard Professors Write Back

  1. The Skip Gates incident has drawn attention to an often overlooked form of police abuse. When Crowley himself became the source of irritation and having confirmed that Gates owned the house, he should have walked away. Some officers have too much umbrage and arrogance. They are the ones diminishing police authority, not Gates and his supporters.

    • welcome to the blog Aurora. It’s a weird world when the people sitting in their own homes are blamed for an avoidable situation. But it is the same world where police were exonerated for shooting at unarmed civilians trying to cross the only bridge out of NOLA during Katrina and a black youth went to jail for stealing an empty school bus to pick up stranded elderly folks and take them to the superdome before they drown.

  2. I think that General Colin Powell – I still refer to him as General – was on the money with respect to the situation: One doesn’t argue with a police officer.

    That said, there was fault on both sides, and Dr. Gates could have handled the situation better.

    • I think we may disagree here; I think Skip could have been calm about the situation, as I was when I was accosted by the police for a similar reason, but I don’t think that is the core problem. being arrogant isn’t a crime and getting angry @ cops publicly is a discretionary crime, ie police have the discretion to not charge people for talking back if they are guilty of nothing else. I think we have to ask the question why the officer chose to arrest, and while we will never definitively know the answer, we can look at the studies on discretion and policing to find some consistent patterns that point to race.

      (was it you who tweeted the chronicle article yesterday? I read it on the Harvard page but realized someone had tweeted it that I wanted to credit.)

      • Wisse is confused. Crowley’s police report was already shown to be false: it claims the officer spoke to Lucia Whalen (the 911 caller), but that never happened; it also claimed the 911 caller reported black men with backpacks, but Whalen had actually reported one unseen man and another _possibly_ Latino man, with luggage.
        this is an example of the police officer LITERALLY constructing a narrative of a black man’s criminality (Derrick Bell’s analysis, as you point out).
        even a supposedly “racially-sensitive” officer like Crowley knows it is no big deal to falsify a police report. just change the truth is a few subtle ways. not only would officers usually get away with this lie, Crowley will probably get away with it, even in this case. Gates is willing to reconcile, City of Cambridge wants to “move on.”
        what i mean is, as you say, we will never know for sure why the office chose to arrest Gates. we will never know for sure whether Gates did something to fit the legal definition of “disorderly” (though in legal terms, dropping charges indicates the charge was unjustified).
        one thing we know for sure – the officer lied on the official narrative, and the officer has not been held accountable for this crime.
        (any research on police use of falsified reports against people of color, and on how such cases are resolved?)

      • welcome to the blog Kip and thanks for those updates. Like the piece in the NYT today that points out the whole incident from 911 call to arrest was 6 minutes, hardly enough time for all of the acting out Skip is said to have done in the police report, this pieces give us a clearer picture of this specific incident. I hope it also helps elucidate the false sense of justice some have by also reflecting on other cases.

        I’ve got a list of people who have written on the prison industrial complex on the blog somwhere and I’d think at least one or more of those authors have looked at police reports, perhaps Krista Williams? or Joy James? There are a lot of books on historiography that also point to how to read these kinds of sources that would be helpful in general.

  3. I agree that getting angry with a police officer isn’t a crime, but, he/she does have the discretion to run someone in for disorderly conduct. I mean, Prof. Gates hurled insults at Officer Crowley. Way uncool. Enough for slapping on the cuffs? Probably not. But, people have died in the course of such encounters. Given the history of Black men and their encounters with the police, Prof. Gates is very blessed to have had Officer Crowley respond to the call, and not someone else with an ax to grind.

    I still think that General Powell offers a sensible approach, and a reasoned response. But, I respect our ability to disagree.🙂

    The Chronicle article? I don’t believe it was me. But, thank you for looking out.

    • He is lucky he didn’t get shot. I think we agree on that.

      Do you have a cite for Collin Powell’s comments? Or was this his recent tv appearance?

    • thanks. I didn’t get to watch the whole interview plus I think this link, along with the others in the post, will be helpful to others!!

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