I have spent much of the week thinking about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident. I have always admired Gates, used his work in my dissertation (during which I had a polite and helpful exchange of letters with him) and during the writing of my forthcoming book on theory, in which he figures extensively. I viscerally sympathized with him having to deal with the police, at the end of a long trip (having done that distance from Australia, I know how he must have felt) and finding his door jammed. Very few academics, especially one of Gates’s stature, would be above using “Are you aware who I am >” rhetoric in that circumstances, it is a kind of arrogance that just ocmes with the territory of being a professor, and it is, after all, one of the few things we have—even somebody of Gates’s stature is not well-salaried when compared to the Coco Crisps and Jose Guillllens of the world. Sometimes our cultural capital is our only armor, and if gates was showing off that capital to Sargeant Crowley, it was in a way his professional reflex to do so.
My first reaction to the incident was that it was racial profiling; that the person who made the call should have known their neighbors; and that the police should not have arrested gates unless he was violent, not just agitated or petulant. which again I would not put myself past being if I were in the same circumstance. I still basically feel this way.
I was surprised at how big a story this became—I was interested in it, but I know Gates’s academic work. I was surprised that people who had no stake in Gates’s work became so interested, but clearly, as President Obama implied, it became a barometer of people’s attitudes towards racial profiling and police brutality. It mushroomed very quickly—it was surprising Lynn Sweet asked the question at the end of a press conference that could be instrumental in a pivotal health-care bill, and it was surprising that Obama addressed it so forthrightly and with such a clear admission of his own stake in the matter. Obviously, he himself now wishes he had not said ‘stupidly,” when something like “precipitously” or “heedlessly” would have been fine, but no one who has a had to answer questions about multiple subjects for an hour could say they would be pitch-perfect in their diction and in their nuances of meaning. Police officers have been ragged by the intellectual left for their level of intelligence, and are understandably miffed by that, and by a general left-elite disregard for the police, audible, sadly, even in New York right after 9/11. Having made an obvious mistake, the Obama White House handled it well with the rapid-response acumen they showed throughout last year’s campaign. What if Obama had offered to have a latte or a Cosmopolitan with Sargeant Crowley, not a beer….
But what I am interested in is another aspect ot the situation, my Lang colleague Ferentz Lafargue, in a fascinating essay in the Huffington Post, has suggested that town-gown, as much as black-white tensions, may be at the source of the incident—Cambridge, having elected two black mayors in a row, who in addition were successively a gay man and a lesbian, is not necessarily a hidebound racist enclave, but does participate in the historic tension between municipalities and universities that play a huge economic role in them but do not dominate lock, stock and barrel. I would add to this that some of the reactions gates provoked may be reaction provoked in general by intellectuals. I do not mean to invoke the corking ghost of Richard Hofstadter one more time, but we all know the road to popularity in this country is not by appearing overly cerebral, and that for all of Gates’s popularizing and media friendly activities, most people in the US would still perceive him as forbiddingly academic. It is in this regard that I note that, until this incident, Obama has been, strikingly, helped rather than hurt by his evident intellectuality. Unlike past Democratic candidates like Adlai Stevenson, reviled for being an ‘egghead’, Obama’s clear comfort with books and curiosity about what is in them did not hold him back from the top. Part of this is racial—Obama’s intellectuality meant he was not a “black militant,” his conversancy with the mainstream academic tradition meant that he could be counted on to affirm common American values. But some of it may well have been a growing comfort level with people who foreground their intelligence, a concession that expertise and intellectual curiosity are needed in government. The Gates incident is the first time Obama’s intellectuality—his reposnse to Gates being conditioned not just by his personal friendship with the professor but his knowledge of the value of his work and the regard it has garnered—influenced his reaction to Sweet’s question, and arguably the American people’s reaction to his reaction. This is perhaps a way to explain just how much stemma this story has unexpectedly gotten….