A Professor, a Policeman, and the President
There is no need for me to retell this story. You can read all about it in the New York Times or turn on the TV, the story is everywhere. When it comes to race in this country there seems to be no shortage of opinions. However, there are a few things worth noting here before reaching an opinion. First, one must consider all the facts and not simply make up your mind based on a knee-jerk reaction. If your are African-American it might be simple to accept Professor Gates’ story without question. As the President noted, black have been disproportionately pulled over and arrested in many parts of this nation. If you are white you might roll your eyes and completely accept the officer’s story. Perhaps both versions are the truth “from a certain point of view.”
If you have ever been pulled over by a police officer in the middle of the night and randomly searched you might understand the distrust so many have for police. I tend to distrust traffic police, myself, having been tricked into exiting at a closed exit only to have the officer replace the cones after pulling over four exiting cars. The officer threaten to arrest me if I exited my car (I expect he feared I would photgraph him positioning the cones.) In spite of my protests the judge would not even allow me to speak in court. Having never encountered a problem with other flavors of the police, I tend not to be as suspicious of them.
Moving back to Professor Gates, let’s take a look at the Professor’s background. According to the Harvard website, Gates is the Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, a publication dedicated to the news and culture of African Americans. In 2002, (IMDB says 2002 while Harvard shows 2004, I even found one review placing it in 2003, IMDB is generally accurate,) Professor Gates wrote and produced the PBS documentary, American Beyond the Color Line. This documentary examines the history of and contemporary state of race relations in the U.S. He concludes that Hollywood is a hotbed of racism, although he does detail improvements in these relations as well. The story is told nearly exclusively through interviews with prominent black Americans, so naturally the story is from an African-American perspective.
Now let us look at Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police. Crowley taught a class on how to avoid racial profile at the Lowell Police Department for five years. He was hand picked to teach this class by the Ronnie Watson the former Commissioner of the Cambridge Police. Watson is an African American. Sgt. Crowley was described by Academy Director, Thomas Fleming, as “a role model” and “very professional.” Perhaps the best testimonial for Sgt. Crowley comes from fellow officer and witness to the events at the Gates’ home, Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer. Lashley described Gates’ behavior as “a little bit stranger than it should have been.” When asked if he supported Crowley’s decision to arrest Professor Gates, Lashley replied, “100%.”
Perhaps Gates was tired as Lashley speculated, but I suspect Gates was predisposed to expect racial profiling. When Crowley explained he was “investigating a report of a break in progress,” Gates shot back, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” Clearly, Gates was mentally defensive toward law enforcement and never considered that the officer might just simply be doing his job. After all, we must understand Gates entire career is built on the premise of racism in America. His response nearly echoed the theme of his writings. The overreaction Gates produced would make me wonder if there wasn’t a hostage situation in the other room and perhaps Gates was attempting to get arrested in order to get away from the intruder.
Obviously, Crowley is much more experienced in racial relations and in dealing with these situation, as he appears to have not jumped to arrest Gates. According to his official police report, he prepared to leave and told Gates he was leaving. Gates claims Crowley silently turned and left. I don’t doubt Gates failed to hear anything Crowley might have said. If the report is true Gates was yelling over Crowley the entire time. Once outside Gates continued loudly accusing Crowley of being a racist. Sgt. Crowley twice warned Gates that his disorderly behavior would get him arrested, but no doubt Gates in his rage was unable to hear this warning.
I don’t doubt Gates’ version of the story is anything but true from his perspective, while I also accept Sgt. Crowley’s report as completely true. The police report is corroborated by other officers at the scene as well as bystanders. It is sad that Gates has so brain-washed himself with his own negative stereotypes of white police officers that he jumped to the conclusion that Crowley was there because he was a racist. For Gates, the officer at his door was not there to protect him and his property, but rather he was standing there to harass and torment him.
There is absolutely no difference between Professor Gates’ reaction to Sgt. Crowley than that of a white store clerk who carefully watches black patrons due to the conviction that the patron must be there to steal something. Racism continues to be a problem in this country and this incidence should highlight black racism in America. However, this aspect of the story is likely to be lost to a biased media that believes racism comes exclusively from whites. Racism can come from any race and can be directed against any race. It is wrong and it should be the focus of intense introspection for all of us. Now is the time for the African American community to address their prejudices. Have they been victimized, yes. Is that justification to reverse the racism, no. As a nation with a bi-racial President it is time to end the racism and move forward not try to turn the tables.
That brings me to the most unfortunate example of racism in this story. President Obama, obviously taking his cue from Congress, decided Wednesday evening to weigh in on this story without having read the report or even having the facts correct. He responded from his personal prejudice. He assumed Gates was the victim of “every black man’s nightmare.” President Obama demonstrated his racial bias, otherwise known as racism. Image a white President, a white Professor, and a black police officer. Now imagine if that President were to say, “black cops often harass white citizens, so it is logical to assume the black officer acted stupidly.” Now imagine the ensuing press coverage and your own reaction. Flash back to reality. President Obama has no problem trotting the globe, apologizing for America, yet finds it impossible to apologize when he acts “stupidly.”
I see race relations as a two way street and the best way to operate in those relations is the very way we keep being told we cannot. That is to be colorblind. We should not make race a deciding factor in any decision and we should punish anyone who does, even for the best intentions. I look forward to the day when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Obviously, neither the Professor or the President have achieved MLK Jr.’s dream.