The Defining Divide of Our Age

Back in the 1980s, I taught summer school at Harvard University for several years. Shortly after I first arrived, the coordinator of the summer program in economics took me out to lunch. He cautioned me, if I hoped to be invited back the following summer, I should not talk to any of the full-time regular Harvard faculty. His message was clear, I was in a lower caste, doing work that the regular faculty had no interest in doing. The servants were not to bother their masters.

I was amused rather than offended. In truth, he didn’t have to worry; I was more concerned with doing my job well. Although I had an office in the same building where the Harvard economists were housed, very few of them made appearances in the three summers I was there.

This week, noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested after forcing in the door on his own home; he had returned home without a key. A neighbor called the police and, although accounts differ, the end result was that Gates was arrested. President Obama last night said that the police “acted stupidly” during the arrest of Gates. Pundits throughout the country were quick to join in the chorus that the arrest is evidence that racism is still alive and well in this country.

News reports quoted Gates as saying, “This isn’t about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America.” He added that the arresting officer as “clearly was a rogue policeman.”

No doubt that racism still exists in the country; and no doubt that some police behave stupidly, even criminally, every day. But the circumstances in this incident do not make the case for either of these assertions. The arrest of Professor Gates had more to do with caste than race.

This morning I caught an internet snippet of MSNBC host Chris Matthews interviewing two guests. His guests were incredulous to the point of derision that the neighbor who called the police didn’t recognize this famous scholar.  Truth be told, I wouldn’t recognize Gates either; and I surely don’t consider that a failing of my civic duties.  Matthews and his guests failed to point out that the woman who called the police was a fellow Harvard employee. They also didn’t find it curious that, although they are neighbors, Gates had never introduced himself to her.  Of course, it is equally true that she never introduced herself to him; I focus on the behavior of Gates because he is the one making the most noise about this incident. Perhaps she never introduced herself to him because she understands the Harvard caste system. She, after all, is a mere fundraiser. Why would Gates stoop to talk to her, an individual in a lower caste.

When the police arrived, Gates initially refused to produce identification.  Eventually he did establish his identity, but then apparently engaged in verbal abuse. The police report can be read here. Now, I know better than to believe everything in a police report; but there are witnesses, including Harvard employees and Gates’ neighbors. No doubt we will learn more in coming days. In addition, according to news reports, the arresting officer “is a police academy expert on understanding racial profiling and has taught a class on the subject for five years at the Lowell Police Academy.”

My read on the situation is that Gates clearly was on edge; he may have over reacted because he was being challenged by someone he perceived as beneath him. “How dare he talk to me like that,” Gates may have thought. Gates was angry at the affront. Many people would have simply showed their ID and thanked the officer for doing his job. On the other hand, perhaps the policeman became angry at the abuse he was taking from a person acting out as a snobby muckity-muck. Caste, rather than race, was likely the great divide here; and there may be blame to go around on both sides.

America has gulfs that divide. The defining gulf of our age is more between those who think they know better than others and should be planning the lives of others and those who just want to be free to fulfill their own dreams.

The 19th century Scottish author, Samuel Smiles, observed about the Industrial Revolution: “One of the most remarkable things about engineering in England, is that its principal achievements have been accomplished not by natural philosophers nor by mathematicians but by men of humble station, for the most part self-educated.” As Michael Strong points out in his book Be the Solution, the same is true for recent technological innovations  which were “largely created by high school and college dropouts” such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell.

The truth is that if Harvard University shut down tomorrow, our daily lives would be unaffected. If Professor Gates was to hang up the towel and never write another word, most people on this earth would be unaware of that fact. The fact is that Professor Gates, the other Harvard faculty, you, and I have every reason to be humble; we have nothing to be arrogant about. They, like you and me, depend upon the great geniuses of the past and the great geniuses of the present who have truly improved our lives.


4 Responses to The Defining Divide of Our Age

  1. Traci B says:

    As usual, excellent insights Dr. Brownstein. I have no time today to add a thoughtful post of my own to the discussion, but wanted to thank you for your thought provoking work!

  2. Tesh says:

    Race and caste reinforce each other. Or at least, some perceptions of them do. (Whether or not the perceptions are faulty is irrelevant if they affect behavior.)

    I am deeply concerned with the subtle (or overt!) aristocratic leanings in this country. Perhaps the most troubling part about it is that such a caste divide is fairly natural and easy to slip into, and there just aren’t many people in the spotlight that are fighting it.

  3. Traci,

    Thank you for the very kind words!


    I am deeply concerned too for what it will foster is a populist backlash that future political demagogues will exploit. This populism will move us further from freedom.

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