Open letter to Henry Louis Gates Jr.

I and your colleagues in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard are outraged by your arrest by the Cambridge Police at your home on July 16. After seeing a filmed statement of the police spokeswoman, who described your arrest as tantamount to an unfortunate incident that was inspired by misbehavior on both your and the arresting officerâÄôs part, I feel compelled to write to you. As your friend, co-author, co-teacher and colleague, I can say honestly that in the many contexts in which I have seen you over many years, I have never known you to exhibit tumultuous or disorderly conduct. I certainly speak for myself and also, I trust, for all of AAAS when I state that I believe your account of the events and support you in every way. Indeed, we are proud of you and rejoice that tonight you will receive acclaim by CNN for your scholarship and leadership in bringing knowledge of African and African American history and culture to a wide, even international public. We commend you for this, while also realizing that to be black in America brings painful situations such as what you are now experiencing. I have known personally great people to have experienced insult at the very height of their careers. The insidious nature of racial presumption is that the offending white person is often unaware of his or her insulting actions and has no deliberate intention to commit a racist act. For Franklin and Keith, the humiliating incidents were not police related, but they were unfortunately all too common experiences for many black people. Nor have successful black persons been immune from police arrest or harassment, even though innocent of any crime. Racial profiling by the police has long been a subject of discussion by academics, lawyers and ordinary citizens, and sensitivity sessions have clearly not yielded a transformed police force. I was particularly proud to read your statement in which you identified and sympathized with black people far less privileged than yourself who undergo similar arrest and even more suffering. As you remarked, their stories rarely make the national news. We will probably never know the full emotional state of the policeman who came to your own home in the belief that you were breaking and entering. We do know you, however. Rest assured we are in your corner. Evelyn B. Higginbotham is the chair of the Harvard African and African American Studies department and the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. This first appeared in the Harvard Crimson and was accessed via UWire. It was edited for space. Please send comments to [email protected]