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Rankism: The Elephant in Professor Gates’s House

The Gates Affair reminds us of our sorry history of racial profiling and gives new impetus to ending it. It also suggests that we’re more likely to eradicate profiling if we show our guardians the same dignity that we seek for ourselves.

When renown Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his Campbridge, MA home, we were quick to look at the incident through the lens of race.


But it soon became clear that race was not the whole story. To bring things fully into focus, we need a second lens—that of rank. The lens of race highlights the well-known injustices of racism. The lens of rank reveals the less well recognized indignities of rankism.

Rankism has not received the attention that racism has. Perhaps its time has come. But, before looking through the lens of rank, a common misconception must be cleared away.

Rank, in itself, is not the problem. Like race, rank is just a fact of life. Rank tells us who’s in charge. Used properly, it’s a useful organizational tool. The problem lies not with rank per se, but in rank abuse. By analogy with racism, sexism, and ageism, abuse of the power signified by rank is rankism. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere.

Rankism is the principal source of man-made indignity. As indignities accumulate, it becomes harder to repress the indignation they seed. Beyond a threshold that varies according to personal history, indignation erupts. It is not hard to understand why Professor Gates felt humiliated by treatment he interpreted as another instance of the racial profiling that has long dogged African-Americans and others lacking the protections of social rank.

On top of that, a pillar of common law has it that “a man’s home is his castle.” Homeowner Gates might reasonably have assumed that he outranked a law enforcement officer on his home turf. While giving vent to his indignation can be questioned, it’s not difficult to understand his anger.

Now turn the lens of rank on the attending police. Police are trained to assume command of unruly situations. While on duty, the understanding is that our guardians outrank us, precisely so they will have the authority they need to stabilize volatile situations.

We expect the police to exercise their authority according to strict rules that safeguard individual rights and the public interest. On those occasions when our guardians do abuse their rank, victims’ only resort is to take the matter to a higher authority. That minorities and the poor, more than others, must pursue justice in this way is evidence that rankism falls disproportionately on them.

The Gates Affair, and the discussion it has provoked, were incubated in America’s racial history and aggravated by confusion about rank and its proper use. To reach a judgment on the Gates Affair, one must decide whether or not Professor Gates improperly attempted to assert his rank—as a Harvard professor or as homeowner—over the policeman.

It is equally germane to ascertain whether or not Sergeant Crowley overstepped his legitimate authority in arresting Professor Gates. My purpose here is not to rehash, let alone try to pass judgment, but rather to find, in our obsession with the incident, a clue to the crux of the matter.

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The Gates Affair is that rarest of teachable moments—one that provides an opportunity to drive home an old lesson while offering us a new one.

The Gates Affair reminds us of our sorry history of racial profiling and gives new impetus to ending it. It also suggests that we’re more likely to eradicate profiling if we show our guardians the same dignity that we seek for ourselves.

But, more important than assigning blame in the case is turning the lens of rank around and seeing what it tells us about ourselves and our relationships.

The clash between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley grips us because it mirrors our own struggles with rank and its rightful use.

How much deference is due our boss, our spouse, elders, children, teachers, doctors, religious leaders, and elected officials? Where does the proper use of rank end, and rankism begin? When it is we who are outranked, do our superiors treat us respectfully? If not, why not? In those areas where we hold rank over others, do we protect their dignity as we would have them protect our own?

At long last, we’ve got racism in our sights. But rankism is still largely below the radar. Like racism and sexism before they were identified, rankism is endemic, ubiquitous, and seemingly impregnable.

It’s an unrecognized source of dysfunctionality in families, schools, the workplace, religious institutions, and healthcare. Like the more familiar isms, now finally on the defensive, it too will have to be rooted out of our social institutions if we are to perfect our union.

The Gates Affair offers an opportunity to widen our lens so as to take in all varieties of rank abuse and to recognize the indignities that arise from them.

robert fuller

The professor and the policeman will have served us well if the incident with which they are identified is seen as a milestone towards an America in which, without exception, everyone—the public and the police, employees and employers, students and teachers, blacks and whites, young and old, gays and straights, everyone—is accorded equal dignity.

by Robert W. Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.