Over the past several days a strange characterization of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has emerged. Many are portraying him as a radical who easily and inappropriately appeals to race as an excuse and explanation. This image of Gates is inaccurate. In fact, more than any other black intellectual in the country Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was an apolitical figure. This is neither a criticism nor an accolade, simply an observation.
Gates is the director of the nation’s preeminent institute for African American studies, but he is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world. He is more a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement. In this sense Gates embodies a kind of post-racialism: he celebrates and studies blackness, but does not attach a specific political agenda to race. For those who yearn for a post-racial America where all groups are equal recognized for their achievements, but where all people are free to be distinct individuals, there are few better models than Professor Gates.
Gates is largely responsible for the institutional investment in African American studies made by premier universities over the past two decades. Student activists and faculty advocates led the massive black studies movement of the 1960s; a movement that created substantial changes in course offerings, faculty recruitment, administrative structures, and student retention at many state universities. But the country’s most privileged institutions remained largely untouched by this populist era of race and ethnic studies.
Rather than relying on techniques that mimicked the Civil Rights Movement, Gates helped innovate and perfected a market strategy for African American studies.
Gates used the inherent competitiveness of Ivy League institutions to create a hyper-elite niche for the very best black academics. His strategy improved the market value of black intellectuals throughout the academy and the public sphere. At one point Gates assembled a "dream team" at Harvard that included professors Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, Michael Dawson, Lawrence Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Lani Guinier and William Julius Wilson.
For a fleeting moment Gates was the curator of the world’s best living museum of black intellectual life. His Harvard cohort sent other prestigious schools into a competitive scramble to assemble their own collection, initiating a gilded age of black academia.
Some individuals would have approached this task as a racial mission; a chance to influence public policy and discourse toward progressive racial ends. This was not how Gates approached it. His style is more deliberate and more detached. By my reading, Gates is tremendously proud of his racial identity, history, and legacy, but he has no particular political agenda beyond the collection and display of black greatness, regardless of its political valence. For example, although their ideologies are profoundly oppositional, Gates finds both Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan emblematic of black manhood and greatness.
Gates frequently compares himself to W.E.B. Du Bois for whom his institute is named. Aspects of the comparison are apt, but Du Bois, unlike Gates, was first and foremost, a race man with a political agenda. In the course of his long, prolific, academic and activist life Du Bois pursued every imaginable strategy to address America’s racial inequality. He advocated education, research, patriotic military service, interracial coalitions, direct advocacy, legal strategies and journalism. He was first a staunch integrationist and later a socialist. His self-exile to Ghana was a final expression of his disillusionment with the American project.
Professor Gates is not disillusioned with the American project. He is enamored of it. His home casually mixes classic Americana with protest art of the black Diaspora. His dinner table is rarely segregated and his Rolodex certainly isn’t. Even his more recent commitment to genealogy and fascination with the human genome project is prompted by his delight in uncovering the messy, unexpected, deeply American stories embedded in black life.
Du Bois was a product of the American racial nadir. He lived at the hardest moment in our history for black citizens. He was deeply suspicious of white America and constantly vigilant in his interactions with white Americans. Gates is possible only in our present moment.
Du Bois deplored the double consciousness the ripped at the black soul. Gates is remarkable, in part, because he doesn’t wear a mask during interracial interactions. Gates is precisely the same man with an all-black crowd as with a predominately white one. Though he certainly perceives color he does not make the subtle rhetorical, political, or self-presentation adjustments that most African Americans consider both necessary and ordinary.
Gates is invested in black life, black history, black art, and black literature, but he has managed to achieve a largely post-political and even substantially post-racial existence.
Then he was arrested in his own home.
The Cambridge police and Professor Gates tell somewhat different versions of the story. But both sides agree that Gates came home to find his front door jammed. He used his key to enter by the back door. He and his driver then pushed at the front door until it opened. Witnessing this, someone called the police and indicated there may be a breaking-and-entering in progress. While Gates was on the phone with a property management company a police officer arrived. The officer requested identification. Gates produced it. Even after ascertaining that Gates had not illegally entered the property, the officer arrested him for disorderly conduct. The police report asserts Gates yelled and behaved aggressively. Gates denies this. The charges have been dropped. In short, Gates was arrested even though the police officer was fully aware that Gates lived in the home.
In a moment of overzealous policing a young officer in Cambridge managed to handcuff and detain the living embodiment of post-racial possibility.
And although Gates maintains "I thought the whole idea that America was post-racial and post-black was laughable from the beginning," as if in a testament to his apolitical sensibilities Gates said in an interview to TheRoot.com "I would sooner have believed the sky was going to fall from the heavens than I would have believed this could happen to me."
It is hard to imagine many other African American men who would indicate such surprise. Even President Obama has spoken of the difficulty in hailing a cab and First Lady Michelle Obama has expressed her understanding of black men’s vulnerability to random violence. But Gates seems genuinely surprised and deeply hurt. His sense of violation and humiliation evokes great empathy, but also some incredulity about his astonishment with racial bias in the criminal justice system.
I like and respect Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Although we have had intellectual and political disagreements he has always welcomed dissent and encouraged individuality. Our personal connection is not why I was so devastated to see his mug shot or images of him handcuffed on his front porch. I was not even distressed because of class implications that reasoned, "If this can happen to a Harvard professor then no one is safe."
My distress is squarely rooted in feeling that I watched the police handcuff American possibility.