Sunday, August 2, 2009

Race and Privilege in Cambridge

Much has already been written about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, so I only reluctantly delve into this morass, filled as it is with issues of class, race, and privilege. My first reaction upon learning of Gates’ arrest in his own home after a neighbor reported a possible burglary-in-progress was, “You have got to be kidding. What was the police officer thinking?” I am quite familiar with Gates’ work, having watched him on PBS, read some of his writings, and seen him occasionally interviewed on network television. If I were the officer, I would have recognized Gates immediately and known right away that the 911 call was a well-intentioned mistake. The President’s initial reaction that the police had “acted stupidly” seemed accurate to me, as I simply could not fathom how a black professor was arrested in his own home, particularly after it had become clear that no crime had been committed and that the professor, a distinguished looking, slightly elderly, man who wears glasses and walks with a cane, was in his own house. However, as is often the case with issues so seemingly black and white, the facts often interfere with our initial instincts and pre-conceived notions of reality, and the truth turns out to be much greyer than originally thought.

Much of the commentary I have seen on this incident has concluded that this was another incident of racial profiling, Gates the innocent victim of white racism by yet another rogue police officer who assumes every black man is a criminal and cannot distinguish a Harvard professor from a crack addicted burglar. Had Gates been arrested for burglary, which many commentators have incorrectly implied, it would have been nearly impossible to argue otherwise. The history of black men being arrested for crimes they did not commit, for being stopped on the street because they did not “belong” in a particular neighborhood, for being falsely identified by white witnesses possessed of insufficient skill and care in making cross-racial identifications, lends instant credibility to charges of racial profiling, particularly where a black professor is arrested in his own home.

But the professor was arrested for disorderly conduct, not burglary, by an officer specially selected to teach other Cambridge police officers about the wrongs of racial profiling, which suggests a scenario at odds with the “black man arrested for burglary in his own home” narrative that so many commentators have assumed. According to the police report, and apparently not really in dispute (except for certain details as to what Gates may actually have said to Crowley), Gates was angry and belligerent, clearly upset that he was, in his mind, being accused of burglarizing his own home, such that he lost his temper and said a lot of things to the officer. Whatever Gates may have said or done, I do not believe the officer was correct in arresting Gates – in my view, at least, he was not – but it suggests many possibilities that have little or nothing to do with race in explaining why Gates was arrested.

Having served as a criminal prosecutor for over 18 years in two different cities, I have worked with and befriended many police officers and law enforcement agents. I have heard their war stories, ridden along in their police cruisers and, unfortunately, attended some of their funerals. Most of the police officers I have worked with – black and white – are hard working, honorable men and women who try to do the right thing and who patrol the streets with discretion and tactfulness. But officers tend to have varying degrees of self-control and patience; some are quick to bang heads, while others are more skillful at ratcheting down heated scenarios and exercising diplomacy. Issues of class and race are ever present in the exercise of their daily duties, and as can and should be expected, some officers are more sensitive to such issues than others are, and some have greater degrees of tolerance for abusive and disrespectful language.

With the understanding that, like the President and all other commentators on this subject, I was not there – this is what I take away from the incident:
  • Initial appearances to the contrary, I do not believe this was a case of racial profiling. Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, not burglary. This appears to be a case of an officer losing his patience with a belligerent citizen. Although Gates was understandably upset that a police officer was treating him as a burglary suspect in his own house – indeed, as someone who has spent his entire life studying and teaching the history of the African American experience in the United States, he perhaps is particularly sensitive to issues of racial profiling – his mistake was in automatically assuming that the police officer was acting out of racial bias.

  • Although I believe that Gates over-reacted – failing to see that the officer was actually doing his job, responding to an admittedly mistaken report of a burglary-in-progress, but nonetheless attempting to protect Gates’ home – we do not know how Sgt. Crowley handled the initial approach with Gates. If Crowley was initially overbearing or too authoritative, it would help explain why Gates became so belligerent – i.e., “How dare you suspect me of anything, this is my house, I am a Harvard professor, yeah, just assume I’m guilty of something, another white cop oppressing a black man in America….” Just as Gates may have been afflicted with feelings of intellectual superiority over this working-class cop who did not recognize that Gates was an academic celebrity, it is possible that Crowley bore some deep-seated resentment towards Harvard professors.

  • Contrary to the statements of many commentators, I believe that, had Gates been a white professor, all else being equal, he still would have been arrested. While I have never suffered the indignities of white racism in American society or been arrested for Driving While Black, I know better than to yell and scream at a cop. I will be arrested, possibly have my ass kicked to boot, if I treat an officer with a great deal of disrespect. I am not saying this is right – police officers need to have thick skins and should be able to tolerate a great deal of verbal friction – but I know enough cops, and have seen enough in action, to know that, you verbally abuse a cop and disrespect one, you are taking a big chance on getting handcuffed.

  • That being said, Sgt. Crowley should have known better than to escalate this incident into an arrest. Regardless of what Gates said – and I don’t care if he did say, “I’ll speak to your mama outside” as alleged by Crowley in his police report – the officer should have walked away and taken whatever verbal abuse Gates may have been dispensing. The fact remains that Gates was in his own home and, however reluctantly, did prove his identity. He was understandably upset, so let it go. Gates may have been acting like a jerk, but that is not a crime. As a professional police officer, Crowley should have exercised better judgment.

  • The President should not have commented on this story without first learning the facts, and even then it is probably unwise for a President to publicly comment on a local police matter that involves a friend of his. It is generally neither helpful nor wise for the President of the United States to express an opinion on every minor police skirmish, school board dispute, or zoning ordinance violation. Let us stick to the high-level issues, particularly when it is perceived that matters of race are involved.

  • As much as I would love this country to have a truly meaningful, productive conversation about race – racial reconciliation is a subject close to my heart – I do not believe that such a conversation can occur around the Gates arrest. I believe this was simply a case of two people making honest mistakes in how they reacted to an unfortunate situation. There are times in life when, due to differing historical circumstances, perspectives, and professional obligations, both sides can be reasonable and still be wrong. The officer failed to understand the source of the Professor’s angst, which may have been exacerbated by the Professor’s jet lag (he had just returned on a long flight from China) and frustration at having struggled to enter his own house. Conversely, the Professor unfairly assumed he was the victim of racial profiling and failed to appreciate that the officer was legitimately responding to a 911 call and attempting to protect the Professor’s property. And both men failed to control their tempers and penned-up resentments, which resulted in their acting immaturely (in the case of Gates) and unprofessionally (in the case of Crowley).

  • As a reader of Sojourners magazine recently commented in response to an article suggesting that white privilege was the culprit for this whole sordid affair, it may be that both men’s reactions “were reasonable, given their worldviews and their life experiences. There are in this episode neither culprits nor victims. Just a clash of two good but different people approaching a problem from two different perspectives and not having the time to sort out the differences.” Let us hope that Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley each learned something from the other over that beer at the White House and that we can all move on to more important matters.

  • While this country does need to have a conversation about race, this is not the conduit for such a discussion. The facts matter, and the complexities and subtleties of what happened here do not lend themselves to a teaching moment about race – though perhaps a teaching moment about judgment and common sense, courtesy and respect.


  1. This balanced, well-written article reminds us that interaction between races isn't always about race. Sometimes it is more about being human. These two men with different backgrounds and experiences, ultimately, reacted similarly to a stressful situation -- each demanding respect from the other and each impatient to get it. As the article notes, recognition of our similar human flaws rather than the our less important differences may be useful in a productive dialogue that finally transcends race.

  2. From American Thinker:
    February 15, 2010

    "Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who was at the center of Barack Obama's botched attempt at showing the world that he is the first "post-racial" president, recently donated the handcuffs used in that scurrilous incident to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian.

    How very generous of you Dr. Gates. You have now secured for posterity a stark reminder of how far off the mark the liberal left actually is on their notion of racial justice in America. Instead of an "opportunity to come together" for the purpose of "healing and unity," Obama's racial summit cum rose garden beer blast only served to lay bare this president's abject moral turpitude. This might just be the most blatant example of how this administration and its’ allies purposely foment racial tension as a means of advancing their divisive agenda...

    What should be a dignified tribute to the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans for the greater good of this nation, has now been co-opted by those trying to promote a deleterious vision of America's supposed racial discord."

    Rich R.