White Privilege: What if Henry Louis Gates had been White?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009By now, most enlightened people have heard about the incident involving Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police.  As a recap, the Cambridge police arrested the eminent scholar in front of his home.  Just having returned from filming a PBS special in China, Gates, along with his Black taxi driver, were trying to loosen the lock on the front door of his home.  A concerned woman called the police noting that “two black men” were forcing their way into a house in her neighborhood.  Although Gates was already in the house making a phone call to the real estate company that manages his home, the police arrested him. 

Gates’ arrest made me wonder what would have happened in this situation if he had been White.  It seems to me that whenever I am questioned by the police, they give me the benefit of the doubt.  Why? (of course I know why) Let me offer a recent example in which I thought to myself — ‘Hmmm what would have happened had I been African American?’ 

A few months ago, I was driving a friend home who lives in an area of Philadelphia that is considered “dangerous.”  The area is typically heavy with police officers as many people cruise the streets looking for drugs at night.  I dropped off my friend and started to drive home.  As I am not great with directions and it was dark, I got a bit disoriented and accidentally made an illegal right hand turn.  Within minutes the police were behind me, pulling me over.  They began asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood (most likely assuming that I was trying to purchase drugs) and where I was going.  I responded, “I just dropped off a friend after having dinner.  I’m trying to get home.”  Sensing that the officers didn’t quite believe me ,  I said, “I’m a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I just need to get to West Philadelphia where I live.”  The officers let me go immediately and, in fact, they helped guide me back to the main road that would take me home. They also apologized for suspecting me of anything but the traffic violation.

I was pretty shaken after this incident as any interaction with the police makes my pulse quicken.  As I drove home, I wondered what would have happened had I been African American.  Would my “I’m a Penn professor” plea have worked?  Unfortunately, based on the experiences of so many of my African American friends who have been stopped by the police for merely walking/driving/sitting while Black, I know what would have happened.  I now have a definitive answer in Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with the Cambridge police. 

Gates was in his doorway.  I was in my car, far from my home.  I was given a pass immediately by the police.  I can’t help but think my “Whiteness” was a benefit.  Unfortunately, most White Americans do not realize that they walk around with the immense privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt in most situations.  Post-racial America?  Where is this America? 

Let’s hope that people realize that racism is alive and well in America — that they own up to it, take ownership of it.  Better yet, let’s work as hard as possible to counter and confront these racist incidents, to educate those around us, and to fulfill the vision of our current president. 

I think President Obama said it best during his inaugural address:  “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

28 responses to “White Privilege: What if Henry Louis Gates had been White?

  1. Professor Gasman. Your points are well taken. It seems to me that the police officer was arrogant and disrepsectful. Once Professor Gates showed him his identification and verified that he was indeed the resident of the home in question, that should have been the end of it!

    I suspect that the officer was resentful that Professor Gates was a Harvard Professor and he wanted to put what he saw as an “uppity” Black man in his place.

    Such a sordid incident demonstrates that racism is alive and well in a supposed “post-racial” America.

  2. Elwood Watson

    Well stated Professor Gasman!

  3. Let me pose alternative hypotheticals:

    What if Professor Gates hadn’t cried racism the moment the police arrived?

    What if a white professor had made a yo’mama joke to an officer?

    Nonetheless, yes, this is an opportunity to reflect on white privilege. It is also an opportunity to reflect on “not aggravating an already bad situation.”

  4. The rabid attacks on Gates and defenses of the cops in the media and the blogs show that racism is alive and well in this country.

  5. Are you that sheltered? Go to any bar with young white men on a friday night and watch what happens when they mouth off to cops? They get arrested. It’s SOP.

    What if the professor was white and called a black cop a nigger. Do you think he’d still have a job at Harvard.

  6. roy l. gooden jr.

    i do agree completly. i am a nurse at the city jail in my town. the head nurse is a white male. whom is retired from the military. i was also in the military. he seems to think as long we continue to talk about racism, or cry foul play whenever atrocities occur. we are merely perpetuating the problem. i will not be quiet when racial profiling still occurs. i do believe the race card is thrown around way to much but this should not lure us into a false since of euphoria. we do have race problems in our country. we must deal with them head on. this should be in a case by case basis. we dare not generalize every police officer who is risking his/her life to keep our cities safe. lets recognize there is a problem and deal with it. thank you for boldly saying what alot of people choose not to.

  7. Nicely said, Marybeth! I struggled to convey these ideas to an all-white (all upper-middle class to upper-class) freshman last year. It’s hard to understand the “built-in” privileges of your race.

  8. This professor, from what I have seen, has always had a chip on his shoulder towards white people. He would love to make the slavery issue TOTALLY the white peoples’ burden; and ignor the historical fact, that it was, and is, the black African culture that initially and PRIMARILY cultivated the racially organized slavery era. The blacks basically did it to themselves (just look at how they’re into ‘personality’ and ‘idol’ worship). But “the good professor” could never admit to that; otherwise how could he continue his ‘upperly mobile’ lifestyle… The proud ancestor of a house bleep-er.

  9. I want to thank you for your post.

  10. You said it all.Seeing is believing.Skin color and first appearences can be very judgemental

  11. Change the facts a bit , instead of complying to the officers questions , you get uppity, start getting in the officers face, demanding to know why the officer was picking on you for a simple vehicle violation when they should be out catching real criminals. Chances are white or not you would have been asked to step out of the car. By your own statement you seemed to show respect for the officer in question, avoided comfrontation and were allowed to continue on.

    Professor Henry Louis Gates ,by the facts presented so far and by his own words and actions has to accept blame for the end result.
    You need to get a better personal example if your trying to prove a point.


  12. James D. VanWright

    Great example of white privilege Dr. Gasman,
    I will acknowledge that the reaction of Dr. Gates may have been erratic, however; once identification had been proven the situation should have been over. White-privilege is a reality in “post-racial” America. Race did play a part in this situation, CNN has discussed this topic at great length over the past week and one of their many theories as to why Dr. Gates was arrested is race was the issue from the very beginning. When the neighbor called and told the police that there were two black men breaking into a house in an affluent neighborhood; the police were looking to arrest two black men. Given the relationship between Black Americans and the police in America it’s not surprising that Dr. Gates was “on guard” in his own home. I don’t believe that displaying his credentials with hopes of having the officer re-think his treatment of Dr. Gates was racially motivated. I do believe that had Dr. Gates been a white man the situation would have been resolved without an arrest no matter what the hostility level of the “alleged suspect”.

  13. Marybeth, I know your words were sincere and well meant and I respect your opinion. But as we have seen in the days since the incident, this is not a simple matter of racial profiling. The woman who reported the “break in” did not even state the race of the 2 men on the porch. What is clear is that had Professor Gates shown some respect for the officer this would not have been an incident. Any policeman will recognize the protocols in this case and would have acted the same way whether the professor were white or black. Now with that said, do black males suffer more scrutiny from the police (and suspicion from other citizens of all races)—Yes. How much of this has to do with the legacy of racism and how much from crime statistics which show a disproportional frequency of black crime we cannot say. But it is safe to say that it is less of the former with each generation. And that at least is a good thing.

  14. What happened to Dr. Gates was foreseeable and his frustration with it is understandable; however, what’s unnerving to me is that he did not expect it to happen to him. In other words, Gates is not living in the reality of the Black Experience. In his 1988 Oxford title, The Signifying Monkey, Gates writes that “Much of the Afro-America literary tradition can be read as successive attempts to create a new narrative space for representing the recurring referent of Afro-American literature, the so-called Black Experience” (111), and that “the blackness of black literature is not [. . .] some transcending essence that exists outside of its manifestations in texts” (121). But Gates’ new Black Experience certainly does exist outside of the oral narrative that Gates new espouses, just as it exists outside of literature that informs it. Toni Morrison explains in her 1990 lecture, Playing in the Dark, “cultural identities are formed and informed by a nation’s literature” (39), and blackness is such a “cultural identi[y].” In other words, the Black Experience is informed by and informs what Black folks write–period. Authors, particularly oppressed authors, rarely, if ever, write outside of their experience, and therefore, Gates has a NEW black experience that certainly exists outside of the myriad literary manifestations written about racial profiling that he has probably read, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village, Ann Petry’s The Street, and Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place. Get to writing Skip! I’d like to see your new Black Experience in a new brilliant piece of writing by you that will certainly manifest itself in the real world of we poor, lowly, ghetto living Black folk.

  15. The black officer on the scene said Gates was clearly in the wrong.

    Plus, Gates has written that to his ‘horror’, he discovered he was over 50% white.

    It’s clear who brought the racial baggage to this incident.

  16. I can easily understand how the professor felt during all of this. I have encounted white cops who gave me the impression that they felt I was guilty of something even in instances when I’ve called them. I worry about my sons being stopped by cops all the time and whether or not the officer(s) will react based on their perception of black males. Will they plant something on them? Will they shoot them and justify it by saying one of my boys was grabbing for something they mistook for a weapon? Will they beat them bloody? I’ve warned my sons about what to do when they encounter cops? It’s a sad reality that blacks are always considered suspects first. We have to “prove” ourselves worthy and it’s very depressing.

  17. Candy: We cannot allow ourselves to be depressed about something we cannot control. What we can do is change the way we communicate with the cops, knowing full well that they could be racist, which unfortunately, can include cops of any racial background. Case in point: I’d just left work after teaching for several hours and had to use the bathroom, badly I might emphasize. I didn’t go at the school because there were no private bathrooms and the ones available were atrocious. Thus, I began the 15 mile trek to my house, no realizing the driving my 5-speed only made the pressure to my bladder worse and the lead in my foot heavier. I was pulled over by a white police officer on a motorcycle for driving 107 mph in a 55 mph zone. As he approached my vehicle, I rolled down the window and addressed him, saying, “Good afternoon officer!” in a cheerful voice. He was mean at first, but then he noticed me rocking my legs together and asked me what the problem was. I simply explained the situation, apologized for speeding, rather than denying it, and it prompted him to be empathetic. He told me that he should not only write me at a ticket, but also arrest me and impound my car, but instead, “because [I] seem[ed] like a nice lady,” wrote the ticket for 75 mph, checked the box that allowed me to take a traffic school course online, and also checked the box that allowed me to skip any court proceeding. By showing the man a little respect, as well as respect for the fact that he had to do his job, I got away with a lot that day, and made it home in time. My point is that racism is better handled when we respond to it appropriately. Does that make me a sellout? No. Do appropriate responses to racism mean that it will go away completely? Of course not. Does an appropriate response avoid drama such as that suffered by Dr. Gates? Maybe; and that’s what we should keep in mind and teach our children.

    Because this type of racial discrimination affects and effects black male lives predominantly, there are a few good books you might want to check out for guidance, Candy: “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys by Jawanza Kunjufu, Vols. 1-3,” and “Yo, Little Brother: Basic Rules of Survival for Young African American Males” by Anthony Davis and Jeffrey Jackson.

    I wish you luck in protecting your sons Candy and hope that his comment can be of some help to you and others who are facing these issues.

    Peace and Blessings!

  18. Great comments. One of the issues I have not seen discussed is the point where both could have deescalated the situation. I don’t think Dr. Gates wanted to deescalate things. My idea is that he knew exactly what he was doing. The police officer could have detained Dr. Gates “for safety,” rather than arrest him. Dr. Gates could have shut his mouth at the point the cuffs went on. Dr. Gates “ain’t no thug or solider” (a la Tu Pac) and facing up with Police officer is not the type of power move he is used to. From the outside looking in, Dr. Gates knows something that few Black folk know. Real power! Don’t forget he is “a friend”, according to President Obama. He was in a strategic position that the Police Officer did not understand that day. Thus, in a strange confluence of events, they are having Beer at the White House. Dr. Gates will extend his power/media influence and the Police Officer may be remembered but do we know his name even now? Ok, I know his name but did not use it to make a point about his lack of power here as a person. Nonetheless, the Policeman represents so many of the thousands of officers who risk their lives every day. In that sense, his name is stronger as simply, “the police officer.” I digress, but I wish the President had remembered different this officer from those professional officers who do their job well everyday. Ok, that officer was in a rare position, dealing with a Black man in power. I have a sense that the Police Officer is in some parts a good guy who made a mistake and is also, like a lot of folk, inexperienced in dealing with Black folk in power. The default position for many folk, in this case, specifically a white person, is to be unsure how to respond to “minorities” in power. Therefore, direct action and force are the only mode to follow, per US police, US colonial history therefore Dr. Gates had to be arrested given that historical momentum.

    Cooler heads should have prevailed. However, Dr. Gates is a smart man, and I have to think that he wanted to strategically take this to his position of power–the media and political arena. I am looking forward to the PBS special on this one. Dr. Gates is NOT like most Black man. My sense is he has proven his point and looks to extend this conversation about Black folk and the Police. It took several media outlets to help him gain his power out of this situation, but when Dr. Gates and the Police Officer sit down tomorrow with Dr. Gate’s friend, POTUS Obama, the police officer will get a lesson from the professor in real power. However, I doubt the Police Officer will recognize the finer points of the lesson. The world has changed but so much of it has stayed the same. As Fredrick Douglass reminded us, “Power concedes nothing.” The “handcuffs at Harvard” fiasco will be remembered. It is up to us how we remember it. Friends, know I will be talking about this in my classes and especially with my minority students who want to go into academia. Real power is not about calling someone racist; it is about making them change their racist behavior. Dr. Gates may or may not have forgotten this but he has the power do to something about it nonetheless. I wish the Police Officer and Dr. Gates well.

    Peace & Health

  19. Correction: I digress, but I wish the President had remembered to differentiate…

  20. This issue let you know that racism is still alive it doesn’t matter who you are, professor, doctor,lawyer. once your skin is black you are guilty.

  21. Dr. James B. Ewers,Jr

    Race and all of its complexities seem to haunt us at every turn. The latest incident involving Professor Gates and Officer Crowley shows us that racial tension much like the famous convenience store is always open. I suspect that cooler heads could have prevailed but they didn’t. As an African American male, I am sensitive to the Gates’ position as I, too, have had an unpleasant experience with law enforcement. There are some forward thinking communities that have already started having conversations about race. Let us hope that some positive lessons come out of this recent incident. If nothing happens then this leaves the door open for more of the same which is tortured feelings. Let us not forget despite our differences that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

  22. So to update – the 911 call didn’t mention race and didn’t claim illegal activity. Just concern at the possibility of a problem.
    We are happy to assume that racism informs all situations. This one didn’t seem to start that way. I think the caller and the call can be seen as a hopeful sign in human relations. I believe her message was deliberately anti-racist, resisting the police’s encouragement to “identify” the men by race. Surely we can find some optimism in this.

    I miss you, MB.

  23. Optimism? Please. That poor girl was brainwashed into thinking it’s wrong to call two black men black. Well, they were black. Even if she didn’t call them that. The media has us all thinking we must deny reality not to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s pretty simple when you call 911. First, tell them what you see, who it is, what they look like, what they’re wearing, what they’re driving, what the license is if you can read it, etc. It’s simple. Dancing about the fact that two black guys are black doesn’t do any good for anyone.

  24. sarastillwaters

    As a SWF, I have had the unique experience of being terminated from a job because I was not African-American. My boss wanted one of his race in my position. Interesting experience.
    So, rather than having to abstractly empathize with black Americans for job discrimination, I can do so from experience.
    The irony is that many times, I had put my reputation and credibility on the line to take a stand against racial discrimination–and still do. The sting is that I did not receive the same reciprocity from my black boss. Oh well. . .

    Gates too was in a position of advantage by education and career to that of that of the arresting officer. Wish he would have used his superior ability at intellectual differentiation to diffuse the situation. Conversely, I have always been a fan of Gates. And part of his charm and success has been his temperamental eccentricities, his verbiage, and his passion. These traits were in full force during the incident. Guess we have to take the good with the bad. Rather have a Gates in this world than to be without.

  25. Dr. Gasman: I must assume you are teaching the youth of the nation that attend where it is that you instruct. I would certainly hope that you teach two important realizations: Look before you leap & Be thorough in researching what you are going to report on.
    Your report here is that the woman making the 911 call was ” noting that “two black men” were forcing their way…” When no such information was given. In fact, on the tape played by major media on television for the nation to hear, she said “They might be hispanic”.
    Henry Gates has some serious issues with race and racial conflict. Apparently, so does The Man Who Would Be King sitting in the president’s chair, to pop off in such knee jerk fashion as you have in this post of yours.
    What bothers me more than racial issues is that you are someone who will influence pliable minds to your manner of thinking.

  26. You might be surprised to learn how similar the result of your encounter with the police officer would have been, had you responded to his inquiry in the same manner alleged of Professor Gates.

  27. Pingback: The Troubling Arrest of Ravens Linebacker Tony Fein – And What It Means for America « Here Goes Nothing

  28. If a white person acted the way gates did he would have been thrown in jail, and he would not have received a television show or enjoyed a beer with the president. This case showed only that people are still overly sensitive about race. The person that made the call to the police did not say it was a black person, the officer even teaches a class on avoiding discrimination to officers. Gates is the one that jumped the gun and assumed that it was a race issue. Don’t believe me? If you are white just try yelling at an officer next time he approaches you, even if you did nothing wrong you will be walking away in handcuffs.

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