Shortly after noon on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., MacArthur Fellow and Harvard professor, was mistakenly arrested by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley for attempting to break into his own home. The ensuing media firestorm ignited debate across the country. The Crowley-Gates incident was a clash of absolutes, underscoring the tension between Black and white, police and civilians, and the privileged and less privileged in modern America. In “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America” (Palgrave Macmillan, $25), Charles Ogletree, one of the country’s foremost experts on civil rights, uses this incident as a lens through which to explore issues of race, class and crime, with the goal of creating a more just legal system for all.
In the immediate aftermath of the Crowley-Gates incident Ogletree acted not only as counsel to Gates but continues to be special counsel to President Obama and adviser on police behavior to both Harvard University and the City of Cambridge.
“One of the most remarkable ironies to contend with is the fact that as we think about Professor Gates’ arrest, President Obama’s intervention, the public reaction and the broader issues of race, class and crime, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in history,” writes Ogletree. “We must rejoice in the fact that Americans were able to put aside race and elect the person they thought was the most qualified individual to serve as president. This celebration echoed from California to Massachusetts, from Florida to Virginia, from North Carolina to Ohio. While this is an important sign of racial progress, it belies the fact that we are still a long way away from achieving Dr. King’s dream of a society in which all people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.
Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the law school. He is the author of four books on race and the law, including the critically acclaimed “All Deliberate Speed,” and has received numerous awards and honors, including being named one of the 100+ Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony Magazine. Working from years of research and based on his own classes and experiences with law enforcement, the author illuminates the steps needed to embark on the long journey toward racial and legal equality for all Americans.
“If America can elect an African-American president, the thinking goes, how can we be accused of having a racially discriminatory society,” says Ogletree. “The mistaken assumption is that since we have achieved so much racial progress, we should discontinue all the efforts to address racial discrimination in the 21st century. Those who believe that we are in a post-racial environment are naive at best or racially insensitive at worst.”