Was Gatesgate Inevitable in a City Long Fractured by "Isms?"

Was Gatesgate Inevitable in a City Long Fractured by "Isms?"

By Karen Klinger

Two weeks after the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., everything seemed normal outside the yellow house he occupies on Ware Street in mid-Cambridge with the most famous broken front door in America (now apparently fixed).

Gates was at the White House, sitting down for a beer with President Obama, Vice President Biden and most significantly, the man who arrested him, Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley. Pedestrians passed the house without even glancing at it. To the relief of Gates’s neighbors, the news crews were finally gone.

But in the aftermath of the maelstrom that resulted from Gates’s arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct and the decision by the Middlesex County district attorney to drop the charge, things were anything but normal in a city that prides itself on tolerance and diversity.

Gates had no doubt that racial profiling played a part in his arrest. “This is what happens to a black man in America,” he reportedly said. Crowley said he was just doing his job, and doing it by the book.

If race did play a role, it was a case of profiling turned on its head: the working-class white cop arrested not an insouciant young black man with baggy pants and an attitude, but a bespectacled, middle-aged academic in a polo shirt and tailored slacks with a limp, a cane and a Harvard ID.

Was the incident a manifestation of racism? Cambridge City Councilor Timothy Toomey, for one, says “no.” It was a different kind of “ism”—classism.

“It just seems to me that we are focusing on the racism charge and I think that is very unfortunate,” Toomey said at the council’s mid-summer meeting July 27, where Gatesgate consumed hours of discussion. “To me it’s a matter of class.”

In the popular, online Huffington Post, Toomey’s position was supported—surprisingly, perhaps--by African-American columnist and former Ebony magazine editor Zondra Hughes.

“Surely, there are racial incidents that capture the nation’s furor and place the post-race America movement in limbo,” she said. “But the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Skip Gates. Jr. was definitely not one of them.”

Hughes added, “The Gates arrest was not about Black vs. White, it was about blue ribbon vs. blue collar. Those were the two colors mixing it up. The Haves vs. The Have-Nots.”

It could be that there was another type of “ism” involved as well: the long-standing town-gown schism. It wasn’t just that Gates is a wealthy, superstar academic. He is a HARVARD academic in a city that has an often-contentious relationship with a university that likes to think of itself as the world’s best.

In a local blog, “Massachusetts Liberal,” (www.baystateliberal.blogspot.com), the author recounted a conversation with a “Cambridge native—as liberal as they come, I might add—who knows her hometown inside and out and offered this observation:

’If this had been Harvey Silverglate or Larry Tribe, the cops would have done the same thing. The issue isn’t race. It’s town-gown.’”

Silverglate and Tribe are well-known Harvard law professors. And they are white. The writer goes on to observe that Cambridge is a “complex place. Working-class neighborhoods not all that far from Brattle Street mansions. The type of class gap that breeds classic town-gown conflict.”

In that vein, the blog recalled a loud and pugnacious champion of the “other side” of Cambridge, Alfred Velllucci, a longtime city council member who served as mayor four times between 1970 and 1989.

Vellucci, who died in 2002 at age 87, tried to provoke Harvard any way he could. He proposed that the university be forced to secede from Massachusetts. He thought the Harvard Lampoon building should be turned into a public urinal (“Well, that’s what it looks like, doesn’t it?” he said.).

A 2001 article in American Heritage magazine, which describes Cambridge as “largely a blue-collar town,” says Vellucci also “suggested that the university chop down its majestic elm trees and turn Harvard Yard into a parking lot to serve a Harvard Square that would be renamed the ‘Piazza Leprechauna.’”

One Harvard graduate who disagrees with the notion that the Gatesgate imbroglio is mostly about classism is City Councilor Kenneth Reeves, who said at the council meeting that while “power” might have played a role, “I think it’s about race.”

Reeves, who described Gates as “a very good friend of mine," said he knew the public fallout from the arrest would be significant, calling it a “hot, hot, hot potato.” He said he also felt “if the press got ahold of this, they would make a mess out of it.”

City Councilor Larry Ward, who like Reeves is black, attempted to steer something of a middle course, suggesting that whatever the truth may be about whether the Gates-Crowley confrontation is an example of classism or racism, perception is what counts.

“If people see it as racist, it’s racist,” Ward said. He added, “But it is what it is, and that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Into this combustible stew, Wendy Murphy, the attorney for the woman who made the fateful 911 call that brought Sgt. Crowley to Gates’s front door, added a suggestion that another “ism”—sexism—played a role in the way Gatesgate has transpired.

At a news conference in which her client, Lucia Whalen, emotionally recounted exactly what she said in her 911 call (she did not bring up Gates's race), Murphy noted with irony that the “three highly trained guys who acted badly are getting together for a beer tomorrow at the White House,” while Whalen, the “one person whose actions were exemplary” was left out.

“I don’t know,” Murphy said, “maybe it’s a guy thing.”


Thanks for your intelligent and insightful analysis -- which has been sorely lacking from much of the media coverage of this issue.

Great article! This is a story that needs some balance, as it has been sorely lacking in this case .... and for sure this has been a 'guy' thing all along ... hombre machista contra hombre machista! It really bothers me that Cambridge is being tainted as a racially-biased city - when the exact opposite is true - over a couple of guys who tried to one-up each other in a power struggle, class struggle, entitlement struggle .... it was both men who behaved badly and the city shouldn't have to bear the weight of racism because of it!

Well put Tracey! You really brought it conclusively into perspective for me. But, if we do have to bare the brunt of the race struggle I'm not surprised and even a bit relieved that it's us/Cambridge that will lead the way to the next level of understanding and healing race relations. It's what we do best. Bring it on and bring the media too.