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Races and places in the Gates incident

There’s an old saying in Mineral County, West Virginia, that gets passed down from generation to generation of graduating high school seniors. It goes something like this: “If you don’t go to college, you’ll go to Pot.” Potomac State College or Pot. State (as it’s called by locals), that is to say. Located in Keyser, West Virginia, Potomac State in a non-selective junior college feeder for West Virginia University. Like many junior and community colleges, it is not celebrated for its academic rigor but still serves the function of “stopping out” many students who lack the work ethic, academic preparation, or ability to complete even watered down, introductory coursework.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or “Skip” Gates as he is known in these parts started at Pot. State (a fact noticeably whitewashed from his Wikipedia page), which was located a few miles away from his hometown of Piedmont. However, he had the “right stuff” and was able to defy the usual local gravity that forces earthward the academic trajectory. Not only did he grow at Pot., he actually went on from there to become the region’s most illustrious intellectual export. After spending a year at Pot., he transferred to Yale University and earned a bachelor degree Summa Cum Laude. He completed a doctorate at Cambridge University. He was hired by Harvard University and became, along with Cornell West, one of the premiere black intellectuals in America, helping to shape the field of Black Studies into what it is today. Over his academic career he has produced reams of books and articles and loads of cellulose, software, and web media. All of it top-notch, ground-breaking stuff.

For a region that produces below its quota of national talent (a few ballplayers, musicians, and a handful of movie actors) and no national caliber intellectual, Professor Gates is a much under-recognized and underappreciated role model. Low expectations, inadequate funding, and extracurricular activity that revolves largely around physical competition: marching, cheerleading, and sportsplay means that schoolchildren grow up and graduate without even hearing the name of Professor Gates. That’s a shame. Gates not only rose to national prominence but wrote an elegiac memoir about races and places, Colored People, that celebrated (and sometimes gently admonished) the region of his birth. He did so with style and sensitivity and without demonization and canonization.

This background makes the current brouhaha a little hard to decipher. The facts are relatively clear. Gates returns from an overseas trip. Fatigued and jetlagged, he finds that the front door of a home that he recently moved into is lodged shut. Understandably frustrated, he attempts without success to pry open the door. A neighbor reports the disturbance. An officer arrives and asks him for identification. Dr. Gates understandably irritated, provides proof and remonstrates. The officer after a period of verbal abuse understandably places Gates under arrest to restore order. A picture of the brouhaha conveys the depth of Gates’s indignation, which after the handcuffs are clasped has now become pure fury. That photo in one fell swoop undermines Dr. Gates’ argument that his exchange was low key.

Gates attacks!

Gates attacks!

There are a few issues that complicate matters here. A vast amount of commentator ink and presidential pabulum has been spent on the role, if any, of racial profiling in the case. Completely overlooked, however, is a more enduring principle at risk here. The proverbial expression “A man’s home is his castle” conveys the importance of government sensitivity to place and appreciation of the individual’s need for sanctuary and privacy in his home, a hallmark of the American legal system. Although order was restored in this situation and plenty of feelings were hurt in the process, do those who acquiesce to beating the drums for “law and order” or racial reductionism risk losing sight of the fact that special places require a gentle touch?

There's no place like home.

There's no place like home.

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