What it's like to be at the other end of racial profiling

WIL HAYGOOD writes about being a black man in Cambridge, after the arrest there of renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates

WIL HAYGOODwrites about being a black man in Cambridge, after the arrest there of renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates

I LOVED living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, except when I didn’t.

And when I didn’t was when I had left my apartment late at night to walk to the all-night corner grocery store with just that $10 bill (€7) stuffed into my pocket, having left my wallet on the bookcase in the hallway.

Then, strolling along, as soon as I spotted a police car, I’d tighten: Dammit, I’m gonna get stopped. Maybe some black guy broke into a home two blocks over. Maybe he was over 6ft and slim like myself. Maybe there was no black guy two blocks over.


I could, in that flash, with my ID at home in the wallet, picture myself sitting in the police car, handcuffed. And then when the car would pass, when I’d finally exhale, I’d dare not look back over my shoulder, lest the officer think I was checking him out checking me out through his rear-view mirror, which would have been a telltale sign of some kind of wrongdoing.

Such are the mind games that black men in Cambridge such as me – and other places – sometimes play with the police.

I lived in Cambridge for a little more than 15 years, working as a reporter. I lived within walking distance of Harvard University, where the renowned black scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates has long taught.

You’d see him coming out of the Harvard Coop, or standing at the news stand in the square, or just walking down the street, bopping along. A lot of “hi’s” shouted out at him.

If you’re privy to the intellectual discourse of the nation, of course you knew of his fame. Physically, he’s on the short side and walks with a limp. He doesn’t, in the least, appear threatening.

So, I loved living in Cambridge, except when I didn’t, which was when I’d just landed at Logan Airport in the middle of the night from a foreign reporting assignment and had to take a taxi home. I’d insist the taxi driver wait until I was safely inside my place. I lived alone and wanted to make sure it was empty. As well, I didn’t want anyone walking by thinking I was trying to break into my own apartment.

So there’s Gates the other day, just back from China, in his house (in a rich neighbourhood that I wouldn’t have been caught fooling around in after, say, midnight, and by fooling around I mean merely walking through, because then, as a black man, you want to cross the street before the group of white females does, which you find insulting) after struggling with the jammed front door, and he suddenly notices police officers out the front.

Someone had called the police on him: a black man in a pricey neighbourhood seen trying to get into somebody’s home. The squad car rolls right up. (That’s real estate reality for you: The police car might not have gotten to one of the streets over in mostly black Roxbury so quickly.) Gates wonders why the police are there; they explain why, a call about a possible break-in.

And then it probably starts to whoosh in Gates’s mind, like a desert wind that must peak before levelling off. Here we go again.

Heated words are spoken, because Gates, in these flashing moments, is not in fact a scholar who studied at the University of Cambridge (in England) – but a black man who is a suspect.

Forget the Harvard and personal IDs, he’s in that touchy nexus and zone of black skin and law enforcement. And that peculiar zone can be exposed day or night. And when it beams on, it can show that the black man is carrying a lot of historical weight – weight that Gates himself has put into scholarship and documentaries – surrounding the heaviness of race in the US.

It’s suddenly pent-up anger and jet-lag words that can’t be taken back, and skin colour and real estate and cold eyes, and I’m not breaking any law, he says, so just leave me alone please, dammit, please. Please. But the wheels are already rolling. He’s off to the police station.

Wil Haygood is a Washington Postreporter

Arrest of Gates: Obama calls police action 'stupid'

A CONTROVERSY over the arrest of a black Harvard professor in his own home has deepened following President Barack Obama's description of the police action as "stupid".

During a televised press conference on Wednesday, Mr Obama acknowledged that he did not know all the facts surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, whom he described as a friend, after he forced open the jammed door of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact," the president said.

James Crowley, the police officer who arrested Prof Gates, has insisted he did nothing wrong and expressed disappointment at Mr Obama's intervention.

"I think he's way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts, as he himself stated before he made that comment," Mr Crowley said.

"I don't know what to say about that. I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too."