Race in the Media

Case study: The arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as an opportunity to talk about racism

Harvard Professor Henry “Skip” Gates never expected to get arrested in his own home.  A prominent African American scholar, Gates came back to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts from a trip to China in the summer of 2009 to find himself the accidental instigator of the first big media-covered racial controversy six months after the election of President Barack Obama.  This controversy became a platform used by journalists and op-ed writers to discuss racism in America.

“Yes, times have changed, and the U.S. has elected its first black president,” said reporter Dick Hughes from the National Telegraph, a newspaper in New Hampshire, “But such history dies hard.”

On July 16, 2009, Prof. Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct after a neighbor called the police saying she saw two men breaking into his house.  When police arrived on the scene they found Gates trying to open his jammed front door.  Police asked Gates to provide identification to prove that he lived in the house.  Gates did furnish an ID, but words were exchanged between the police and Gates that escalated the situation and led to the police arresting Gates and charging him with disorderly conduct.  Prosecutors later dropped the charges.

News outlets all over the world covered Gates’ arrest, noting the general astonishment that a man who the Washington Post called “one of the nation’s most prominent African American scholars,” would be subject to racial profiling.  “This is what happens to black men in America,” said Gates accusing the officer, Sgt. James Crowley.  Noted commentator Lola Adesioye, in The Guardian, “Since Obama was elected, the idea that the presence of a black president negates any incidences of discrimination or claims of inequality has become commonplace… is damaging to the anti-racist cause.”

Though some thought with the election of the United States’ first African American president that the U.S. was progressively moving towards a post-racial society, Gates’ case not only proved to many that race is still an issue in the United States, but gave the media an outlet to discuss the issue, said Lawrence Bobo, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the social sciences at Harvard University and a friend of Gates: “Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States.”

This case did not only affect the United States.  In Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news station, reporter Diana Mukkaled wrote, “Though the American media is cautious about openly discussing racism, all we have to do is visit the U.S. websites briefly to feel sentiment brewing amongst different parts of the complex U.S. fabric.”  Mukkaled observed, for example, the TheRoot.com, a website run by Professor Gates, gives its readers a valuable window into the feelings of African Americans.  The purpose of TheRoot, notes the site itself, is to provide “though-provoking commentary on today’s news from a variety of black perspectives."

Richard Prince, an African American, noted in his blog featured on the website for the Maynard Institute, “Many used the [Gates’ arrest] incident to puncture the myth that the United States had entered a post-racial era with Obama's election, an idea Obama himself denied.”  Prince observed, for example, that “editorial page editor, Harold Jackson of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who is black, said, “I’m using the incident to introduce an editorial on The Sentencing Project’s new report on racial disparities in prison sentencing.’”

Newspapers and journalists covered this story so intensely that President Barack Obama was asked by reporters to comment during a speech on health care.  Obama said on the record that the police officer had “acted stupidly” in his decision to arrest Gates.  After President Obama spoke those words, journalists and bloggers began to openly criticize the president, calling the Black president racist.  President Obama’s statement legitimated commentators speaking out loud what many people were already thinking: Why would a police officer arrest someone for breaking and entering their own home?

When it comes to journalists discussing the issue of race how carefully should media stick to the facts of a breaking-news event?  When is it appropriate to use that event as a way to talk about a controversial topic in society?  What can opinion pieces add to hard news coverage? Should we approach opinion pieces with skepticism or view them as reputable sources?