The Gates Affair: Was it Racism or Rankism?

What should we make of the incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department now that the calming balm of time has offset the outbreak of emotion?

There is an undeniable absurdity associated with a story that involves arresting a disabled man, as is Prof. Gates, who is sitting in his home with proper identification, because a neighbor mistakenly thought he was breaking in.

But such absurdity is not beyond the comprehension for scores of men of color. For black and brown men, in particular, it is almost a rite of passage into manhood to have a part of your day interrupted by local authorities because you "fit the description," regardless of guilt.

The lens of race by which many view this fiasco is legitimate, but may not fully explain why this story rose to national prominence. While much of the conversation around Prof. Gates' arrest has centered on race, we might also examine the role "rankism" plays into this conundrum.

Rankism, a term coined by former president of Oberlin College, Dr. Robert Fuller in his book "Somebodies and Nobodies," is an abusive, discriminatory, or exploitative behavior towards people who have less power.

Rankism underlies many of the social ills of society such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, but it is also based on an abuse of power inherent to one holding a superior rank in life.

As Dr. Fuller recently wrote on the Huffington Post, "Rankism is the principal source of man-made indignity."

It is hard to deny Sgt. Crowley's rank as a police officer trumped Prof. Gates' expectation to feel safe and secure in his home. Much has been made of Prof. Gates' subsequent actions toward Sgt. Crowley, but none of it would have likely occurred if the fundamental premise of Crowley's rank and Gates' expectation had not been abused.

Gates' case is also significant because the initial incivility and abuse was legal. Because of its legality, rankism tends to be tolerated in benign and malignant ways far too often in our society, making it more insidious.

But it was not Sgt. Cowley's "rank" that made this a national story. That distinction belongs to Prof. Gates.

After Prof. Gates was arrested at his Cambridge, MA home, the Mayor of Cambridge, the Governor of Massachusetts, and the President of the United States all publicly referred to him as their "friend."

It is a national story not because a distinguished Harvard professor, who may or may not have been a victim of racism, but certainly unadulterated absurdity. It is a story because of his rank in society along with the rank of those who call him friend.

How often is the President of the United States asked to comment on a local police arrest in the midst of a press conference about arguably the most important impending domestic legislation since Social Security?

Likewise, because of his rank or lack thereof, few are talking about Troy Davis, who currently sits on Georgia's death row embroiled in his own man-made indignity and unadulterated absurdity.

In 1989, Davis was convicted for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail in Savannah, GA. He was given the death penalty despite 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses have subsequently recanted their testimony; several alleged they were pressured or coerced by police.

Davis admitted he was at the scene. But there was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against Davis consisted entirely of witness testimony, which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial.

As I have stated in previous columns, I don't know if Troy Davis is innocent, but I struggle with his life hanging in the balance based on largely recanted testimony.

Like Prof. Gates, everything happening to Troy Davis appears to be legal, making it even more tragic.

It could be argued that race is evident in both cases, but rankism has us still talking about one case after the charges have been dropped, with the parties involved scheduled to have a beer with the president.

Meanwhile, we're basically silent as a man's life hangs by a slender thread based on evidence that's even slimmer.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site: