Gates's liberal college town no stranger to racial dust-ups

Prominent allegations of racism have been made in the recent past at Harvard and MIT – the two storied universities in Cambridge, Mass.

The arrest of an African-American professor at his home near Harvard University gives a rare view into racial tensions in a seemingly unlikely place: America's ivory tower and its liberal environs.

At least in the popular mind, flare-ups between police and minorities tend to occur in the 'hoods and barrios of poverty-ridden American cities. But the liberal bastion of Cambridge, Mass. (per capita income: $31,156; black population: 12 percent), the home of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has its own complex encounters with racial attitudes.

Five years ago, Harvard's S. Allen Counter, a black professor of neuroscience, was stopped by Harvard campus police in what many saw as a racial-profiling incident. About three years later, an assistant professor at MIT, James Sherley, raised a ruckus over his failure to get tenure, a decision that he claimed was race-based. Those claims were never proved, but MIT has embarked on what it calls the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity to address the university's problems in hiring black faculty.

And last week, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested after one of his neighbors called police saying that two black men were trying to break into Professor Gates's house. The scholar, who had a tense encounter with the police, was charged with disorderly conduct.

To be sure, there's debate about whether Gates engaged in a battle of wills with a Cambridge police officer. But whatever the case, authorities dropped the charges Tuesday.

Gates, for one, is still angry and considering his legal options.

These incidents indicate that for liberal institutions and communities like Cambridge, race can be a complicated and, at times, paradoxical issue.

On the one hand, US universities have created hundreds of departments for African-American studies – of which Harvard's is arguably the most preeminent. But on the other hand, racial diversity among faculty at US universities – which columnist Stephanie Ramage calls "bastions of equality and enlightenment" – is, on the whole, lagging.

Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities are black, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The percentage of black faculty at almost all high-ranking US universities is significantly below the national average.

William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, says that while working at a highly respected East Coast university a few years ago, he had to pull out his ID to prove he was, in fact, a faculty member.

For many black academics, he says, Gates's experience won't be all that surprising. "Most of us don't have the luxury of having an existential moment about it," he says.

A different sort of concern is raised by Ms. Ramage, who has written about race and academia as an editor of Atlanta's Sunday Paper newspaper. Black and white intellectuals, she says, have in a way created an academic system of "silos," such as black studies or Asian studies departments. In the short term, these may benefit particular scholars like Gates, but ultimately, they may "make a mockery of" true racial egalitarianism, says Ramage.

"Those outside academia ... are suspicious that there's some very intellectual sleight of hand going on: Why are we instructed to be inclusive, but then the institutions they build are in fact not?" she says.

Meanwhile, news of Gates's arrest is a hot topic in Cambridge and America's other college towns.

"There is such a level of outrage that's been expressed to me," Gates told The Root website in a lengthy interview. "The blogs are going crazy; my colleagues at Harvard are outraged.... But really it's not about me – it's that anybody black can be treated this way, just arbitrarily arrested out of spite."

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