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Ogletree discusses book on Henry Louis Gates

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: News

Photo by Yuan Yao/the Hoot

Charles J. Ogletree, the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Founding and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, spoke Tuesday evening, about the publication of his new book, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Race, Class and Crime in America.”

Ogletree was introduced by Anita Hill, Brandeis professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, and by Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence. “Charles Ogletree has been a giant of the legal system,” Lawrence said, “and he is someone who understands that law has a role to play in the myriad of problems we face as a society.”

Ogletree’s book discusses the July 2009 arrest of Macarthur Fellow and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley. Oglegree asserts that the arrest of Gates for attempting to break into his own home, highlights America’s tensions between black and white, police and civilians, and upper and lower class citizens, and how everyone is subject to profiling. “There is no such thing as the presumption of guilt,” Ogletree said. “In law you presume innocence. But I called my book that because people so often make presumptions based on class and race.”

According to Ogletree, Gates was arrested on the charges of crimes against chastity, morality, decency and good order. Following Gates’ arrest, when President Barack Obama identified with Gates as his friend, he became known as a black president. “It blackened him,” Ogletree said. “The president received an enormous amount of criticism, mostly from whites. Even in the 21st century, race trumps class. People have not been successful at trumping race.”

Additionally, Ogletree asserted that in the arrest of Gates, there was a big difference between what people said and what happened. He also said that if Gates or Officer Crowley had been a woman, the matter would have been solved differently, and called the arrest a battle of testosterone. Due to instances such as Gates’ arrest, Ogletree declared America “not post-racial.”

Ogletree continued to describe the aftermath of the arrest and his shock upon finding that the largest group that reached out to him were black professional men, who recounted their past experiences in facing the same racial profiling as Gates. “How do we get rid of presumptions based on how people dress and where they are?” he asked. “What do we do now that we have a black president? We have one black man in the White House and one million black men in jail. America is not post-racial.”

“The ability of Americans to learn acceptance as opposed to rejection of difference,” Ogletree said, “is crucial.” Since inclusion is the essence of society, Americans must learn to first see similarities among one another, rather than differences. Ogletree then discussed the relevance of racial profiling on college campuses. “Even at Harvard there is a problem with people being judged by the color of their skin. These issues on a college campus require people to speak out, yet too often people don’t complain.”

In his final remarks, Ogletree spoke of how important he believes it is for successful black professionals not to remove themselves from the race. Rather, they should work to lift the whole community out of class oppression. “If we are going to be successful as a society,” he said, “we have to lift the bottom up.”