It’s being called a “teaching moment.”
But the lesson being learned is not what people thought it would be when it was first reported that Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct after a confrontation at his home with a white police officer investigating a reported break-in.
The president, who initially said the Cambridge police behaved “stupidly” has backed away from his comments and now compliments the arresting cop as a “good man” and “an outstanding officer.” Professor Gates, who at one point was talking lawsuit, is now talking reconciliation. Why the pullback?
Let’s look at this incident from each man’s perspective.
You’re one of America’s best-known African American academics who has just returned to your home near Harvard after an overseas trip. Your front door was jammed, so you and the friend driving you home tried forcing it open. Eventually you’re in and minutes later you see a policeman on your lawn asking you to come out on the porch and talk to him, in plain view of the neighbors and people walking by. Inflamed with anger at being stereotyped because you’re black, you demand the officer’s name and badge number and tell people watching the episode that you’re being hassled because you’re black. Before you know it, you’re under arrest, your mug shot is all over the media and your supporters loudly condemn the Cambridge police for racial profiling.
On the other hand…
You are a respected, experienced police officer. You’re told that two black men with backpacks were trying to force their way into someone’s house – a house that had been broken into earlier. When you arrive at the house, you see an African American man inside. You make eye contact through the glass-paned door and ask him to please step out onto the porch, which is standard police procedure. “No I will not!” he says. You identify yourself and tell him you’re investigating a reported break-in at the residence.
“Why? asks the man. “Because I’m a black man in America?”
The officer, Sgt. James Crowley, then asks if anyone else was in the residence. The man inside says it was none of his business and calls the officer a racist. The officer again asks to talk with him outside.
“Yeah, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” he said.
It went pretty much downhill from there and professor Gates was eventually arrested, not for burglary, but for disorderly conduct after being repeatedly warned to stop escalating the situation. The charges were soon dismissed. Gates later said he did not call Crowley a racist or even raise his voice, which has been flatly contradicted by several witnesses (the media have mostly ignored Gates’ misstatements). Two other officers, one black, the other Hispanic, completely support the way Crowley handled the matter.
When this topic was raised on our radio show, half a dozen people called in to report similar experiences with police officers when they were mistakenly reported to have broken into the house they were living in. They all happen to be white and they assumed that the officer was trying to investigate a reported break-in. To Gates, on the other hand, it was all about race. But it wasn’t and that’s the real problem. Looking at reality through the lens of race often distorts reality. A popular local cop trying to keep your home safe suddenly becomes a “rogue” (Gates’ word for Crowley) officer out to roust a man for being black.
The two lessons worth learning here is that academics are sometimes startlingly divorced from simple real life. And second, when the police are investigating a break-in, don’t respond with anger. You’re asking for trouble.