Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009...9:17 am

H.L. Gates/H.D. Thoreau

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As widely reported in the news media, the preeminent scholar of African-American studies, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a public intellectual known to a large American audience for his PBS programs on Africa and on African-American genealogy, was arrested at his home in Cambridge, MA, after he allegedly yelled at police who had come to his home to investigate a possible breaking and entering. (Gates had indeed “broken into and entered” his home because he had misplaced his keys.)

The blogs for Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education are abuzz with comments about racism and racial profiling, on the one hand, and playing the race card on the other.

Facts in the case are few and not uncontested, which leads to Long’s Law of Forensics: Interpretations are inversely proportional to the number and reliability of facts.

Thinking of Gates and his arrest puts me in mind of Thoreau and his:

When I came out of prison–for someone interfered , and paid that tax–I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene–the town, and State, and country, greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property; that after all they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight through useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that many of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.

–“Resistance to Civil Government”

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  • Stanley Fish (formerly of Duke University, where he hired Gates as a prof) writes in his column in today’s New York Times of Barack Obama’s weighing in on the controversy:

    “Speculation was unnecessary, for they didn’t have to look any further than the story they were reporting in another segment, the story of the “birthers” — the “wing-nuts,” in Chris Matthews’s phrase — who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and cite as “proof” his failure to come up with an authenticated birth certificate. For several nights running, Matthews displayed a copy of the birth certificate and asked, What do you guys want? How can you keep saying these things in the face of all evidence?

    “He missed the point. No evidence would be sufficient, just as no evidence would have convinced some of my Duke colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud. It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it’s the White House. Just as some in Durham and Cambridge couldn’t believe that Gates belonged in the neighborhood, so does a vocal minority find it hard to believe that an African-American could possibly be the real president of the United States.

    “Gates and Obama are not only friends; they are in the same position, suspected of occupying a majestic residence under false pretenses. And Obama is a double offender. Not only is he guilty of being Housed While Black; he is the first in American history guilty of being P.W.B., President While Black.”

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