Racial lens sometimes distorts reality

It’s being called a “teaching moment.”

  • Tuesday, July 28, 2009 2:52am
  • Opinion

Political

Columnist

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 are 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?” Not good.

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 professor 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.

More in Opinion

Maybe it’s time Congress takes back its power

The Constitution gives Congress the most power of the three branches of government.

Poking dead things with sticks

They don’t mince words when they call it a “crawl space,” do they?

America is denying three hard truths

There are three major hard truths that our current government has been denying with great vigor: The Mueller Russia-U.S. Presidential election connection investigation, the war in Afghanistan, and the growing national deficit.

Promote the common good by ensuring individual liberty

Citizens following their passions and dreams improve the lot for all.

The three personas of President Trump

There’s Teleprompter Trump, Raw Meat Trump and Twitter Trump.

Attitudes change on farming non-native salmon

Their warnings fell on deaf ears, but the tables have turned on the fish farming industry in Washington.

Voting yes on levies means investing in our kids’ future

We are White River graduates. Our parents are White River graduates. Our siblings are White River graduates, and our kids will one day be White River graduates.

Voting for the levy with make a major #impact for our schools

I have four children in Enumclaw public schools and they all benefit from programs that are supported by the renewal of the operational levy.

Great schools mean great communities

As former elected School Board Member, State Legislator and King County Judge, we understand the importance of educating all children.

Political soap opera won’t end until midterm elections

Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as President Trump, have all taken gambles that will shape the November midterms.

A small act of kindness can make a big impact | SoHaPP

Join SoHaPP’s book group this February to discuss “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. Don’t have the book? Check it out at the Enumclaw Library or visit The Sequel.

Vote ‘yes’ on replacement Education Programs levy

As a high school senior that has spent the entirety of my school life in Enumclaw, I know we have to take it upon ourselves to ensure the efficiency and inclusiveness of our school system.