What Makes the Arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. So Tragic
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Over the past several days a strange characterization of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has emerged. Many are portraying him as a radical who easily and inappropriately appeals to race as an excuse and explanation. This image of Gates is inaccurate. In fact, more than any other black intellectual in the country Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was an apolitical figure. This is neither a criticism nor an accolade, simply an observation.
Gates is the director of the nation's preeminent institute for African American studies, but he is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world. He is more a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement. In this sense Gates embodies a kind of post-racialism: he celebrates and studies blackness, but does not attach a specific political agenda to race. For those who yearn for a post-racial America where all groups are equal recognized for their achievements, but where all people are free to be distinct individuals, there are few better models than Professor Gates.
Gates is largely responsible for the institutional investment in African American studies made by premier universities over the past two decades. Student activists and faculty advocates led the massive black studies movement of the 1960s; a movement that created substantial changes in course offerings, faculty recruitment, administrative structures, and student retention at many state universities. But the country's most privileged institutions remained largely untouched by this populist era of race and ethnic studies.
Rather than relying on techniques that mimicked the Civil Rights Movement, Gates helped innovate and perfected a market strategy for African American studies.
Gates used the inherent competitiveness of Ivy League institutions to create a hyper-elite niche for the very best black academics. His strategy improved the market value of black intellectuals throughout the academy and the public sphere. At one point Gates assembled a "dream team" at Harvard that included professors Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, Michael Dawson, Lawrence Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Lani Guinier and William Julius Wilson.
For a fleeting moment Gates was the curator of the world's best living museum of black intellectual life. His Harvard cohort sent other prestigious schools into a competitive scramble to assemble their own collection, initiating a gilded age of black academia.
Some individuals would have approached this task as a racial mission; a chance to influence public policy and discourse toward progressive racial ends. This was not how Gates approached it. His style is more deliberate and more detached. By my reading, Gates is tremendously proud of his racial identity, history, and legacy, but he has no particular political agenda beyond the collection and display of black greatness, regardless of its political valence. For example, although their ideologies are profoundly oppositional, Gates finds both Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan emblematic of black manhood and greatness.
Gates frequently compares himself to W.E.B. Du Bois for whom his institute is named. Aspects of the comparison are apt, but Du Bois, unlike Gates, was first and foremost, a race man with a political agenda. In the course of his long, prolific, academic and activist life Du Bois pursued every imaginable strategy to address America's racial inequality. He advocated education, research, patriotic military service, interracial coalitions, direct advocacy, legal strategies and journalism. He was first a staunch integrationist and later a socialist. His self-exile to Ghana was a final expression of his disillusionment with the American project.
Professor Gates is not disillusioned with the American project. He is enamored of it. His home casually mixes classic Americana with protest art of the black Diaspora. His dinner table is rarely segregated and his Rolodex certainly isn't. Even his more recent commitment to genealogy and fascination with the human genome project is prompted by his delight in uncovering the messy, unexpected, deeply American stories embedded in black life.