Point of View: Op-Ed Articles

Henry Louis Gates Should Skip the Racial Histrionics: Instead, Teach Kids to Cooperate with Cops

By Michael Meyers
Special to NYDailyNews.com
Tuesday, July 21 2009, 2:59 PM

The most famous black professor at Harvard lives in a very safe neighborhood because, in part, residents look out for and report suspicious activities, and because cops respond quickly to reports of possible break-ins. Yet that’s not how Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, took it when cops showed up at his door after a neighbor reported two black men (Gates and his driver) seemingly pushing into a vacant residence, which turned out to be Gates’ home.

He was arrested for disorderly conduct, and the rest is now histrionic history. (The charges have since been dropped, but the incident is not going away.)

Gates was returning from a trip to China, and he couldn’t get in through a jammed front door, so he apparently went around the back, shut off an alarm and worked with his driver to get the door open.

In any neighborhood – especially one of the safest in America – that kind of behavior would be cause for suspicion and a call to the cops, no matter the color of the guys “breaking” in.

But when police showed up, the “he said, he said” has Gates indignant and, according to the cop, refusing to present himself and his ID, then complying and at some point getting loud – with Gates saying, according to the police report, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?”

Had I been the cop, I would have probably gotten suspended for saying to Gates: “No, stupid, because I need you to step outside so that I may do my job. I need to know that you are who you say you are.”

The cop’s job is not the most famous black professor at Harvard’s concern. Yet Gates’ automatic reflex was racial – that of a victim rather than a property lessee. The man with all the brains did not have the common sense of the average citizen who appreciates good and effective police work.

Calling the cops when one sees suspicious activities underway is exactly what good neighbors do. It is what a woman who works nearby did – and all indications are she acted in good faith. When cops follow up on such a report by asking suspicious persons who’ve seemingly gained entry to a vacant house to present ID, they are doing their jobs.

Nevertheless, Gates and the race industry spokesmen who’ve rushed to his defense have leaped to the fast conclusion that this was an incident of racial profiling – and that one of America’s most famed black academics was a victim of police misconduct. Choice reaction by the Rev. Al Sharpton: “I’ve heard of driving while black, and I’ve heard of shopping while black. But I’ve never heard of living in a home while black.”

Give me a break. Why isn’t it enough that the charges of disorderly conduct have been dropped against Gates? The question answers itself: The race activists need to posture that the nation has to pause and contemplate and endure yet another round of guilt around their “truth” and constant observation of racism by cops. “See,” they exclaim, “in postracial America, the black man with a Ph.D. can’t get into his own home without causing suspicion and getting arrested.”

The real truth is that Gates did not get arrested for being black or even for being suspicious or for breaking into his own home. He was arrested for disorderly conduct – for failing to do what civil rights activists and race experts always advise innocent black men, and all others who come into contact with the police, to do: cooperate.

It makes sense to repeat this message now, especially for the benefit of young black men. If the police confront you, don’t go demanding badge numbers and reading the cops the riot act. Be courteous and calm. Explain yourself and, if asked, present ID.

If there has been a constitutional violation of some kind by the cops, that can be taken care of once the police have left you alone, moving on – let’s hope – to investigate other suspicious behavior.

Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.