After some background on Henry Louis Gates at Duke University:
As the story unfolded in the press and on the Internet, I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.The point:
The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?
Now, in 2009, it’s a version of the same story. Gates is once again regarded with suspicion because, as the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson put it in an interview, he has committed the crime of being H.W.B., Housed While Black.Darn! Why didn't I think of that?
He isn’t the only one thought to be guilty of that crime. TV commentators, laboring to explain the unusual candor and vigor of Obama’s initial comments on the Gates incident, speculated that he had probably been the victim of racial profiling himself. Speculation was unnecessary, for they didn’t have to look any further than the story they were reporting in another segment, the story of the “birthers” — the “wing-nuts,” in Chris Matthews’s phrase — who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and cite as “proof” his failure to come up with an authenticated birth certificate. For several nights running, Matthews displayed a copy of the birth certificate and asked, What do you guys want? How can you keep saying these things in the face of all evidence?
He missed the point. No evidence would be sufficient, just as no evidence would have convinced some of my Duke colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud. It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it’s the White House. Just as some in Durham and Cambridge couldn’t believe that Gates belonged in the neighborhood, so does a vocal minority find it hard to believe that an African-American could possibly be the real president of the United States.