The director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he was arrested outside his home on July 16th for disorderly conduct.

The director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he was arrested outside his home on July 16th for disorderly conduct.

You would have to be living in a deep, dark hole in Cambridge to not have heard about the recent arrest – subsequently dismissed – of Harvard University Fletcher Professor of African and American Studies, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. outside his home on July 16th.  For the past week it has been the talk of the nation; civil rights experts, church leaders, police chiefs, mayors, governors, news commentators, bloggers and people of all walks of life have been chiming in their opinons (so why not Physics professors?). Even President Obama threw in his two cents during this past Wednesday’s press briefing, commenting that the Cambridge officers “acted stupidly” when they handcuffed Prof. Gates outside his own home (Obama has already received considerable backlash from his statements).  Prof. Gates’s arrest appears to have sparked a national dialogue on issues of racial profiling, the limits of police authority and the rights of citizens of all backgrounds.

When I first heard about Prof. Gates’s arrest, the story sounded like a clear-cut case of racial discrimination: a white woman (Lucia Whalen) contacts Cambridge police to report “two black males with backpacks…[one] wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry” at Prof. Gates’s Ward St. home (this from the Cambridge police incident report).  (NOTE: a recent report indicates that Ms. Whelan did not specify the race of the “intruders”) The responding officer, the now (in)famous Sgt. James Crowley, a white man, arrived and asked Prof. Gates to step outside and provide identification.  When Prof. Gates protested his treatment outside his home, Sgt. Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct.  Catch that?  White officer arrests an esteemed black professor outside his own house for yelling.  Sounds like racial profiling, right?  (Al Sharpton thinks so)

The devil is in the details.  The official police report (filed by both Sgt. Crowley and Officer Carlos Figueroa, a hispanic man) claims that Prof. Gates refused to show state identification, presumably necessary to prove residence; cites racist accusations (“accused me of being a racist police officer”) and threats (“You don’t know who you’re messing with”) from Prof. Gates; and reports that the arrest was made after two warnings were given.  On the other hand, Prof. Gates (as quoted in the The Root) counters that he showed both Harvard and Massachusetts state IDs to Sgt. Crowley, never yelled because he “was suffering from a bronchial infection” and states “I don’t walk around calling white people racist.” He also claims to have been immediately arrested upon walking onto his porch without any warning.

These two descriptions paint very different pictures of the episode, and of course there are really three sides to the story: Sgt. Crowley’s report, Prof. Gates’s recollection, and some mixture that is probably the truth.

But let’s consider these perspectives.  If Prof. Gates’s version is correct, then there is no doubt that Sgt. Crowley – and indeed the cadre of Cambridge officers that responded that day (including a black officer seen in the photo above) –  “acted stupidly” and deserve the condemnation that is being widely disseminated by the national media.

On the other hand, if Sgt. Crowley’s report is accurate, that he responded at the request of a concerned (white) citizen and arrested Prof. Gates after being taunted with threats and only after clear warnings, then do we conclude that the whole episode is a grossly overblown misunderstanding?  (That seemed to be the conclusion from an initial joint statement by the Cambridge police and Prof. Gates, now moot.)

Even if we could ascertain the true course of events, these “black and white” interpretations (pun intended, of course) are still insufficient.  Prof. Gates clearly felt threatened by the unexpected presence of a white officer at his home (“All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger.”), an instinct that arose from a lifetime of racial prejudice and discrimination.  Prof. Gates’s refusal to follow orders and verbal rebuffs in view of the public (if this in fact occurred) would certainly annoy an authority figure like Sgt. Crowley (“I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me”), perhaps leading to his decision to place Prof. Gates under arrest and his subsequent refusal to apologize for the incident.  Without being able to read the minds of these men at the time of the arrest – which many pundits believe they are capable of – we cannot begin to understand their motivations or behaviors on July 17th, much less the actual turn of events.

These complexities stand in the face of the many reports and op-eds that generalize this incident as “the sort of episode that has come up over and over again” (Randall Kennedy, Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, in a July 21st NPR piece).   I personally have difficulty comparing this incident with more egregious episodes of racial profiling.  Then again, to the best of my knowledge, I have never experienced negative racial profiling (I get plenty of positive racial profiling – it’s how I get into the pools at the Wailea Four Seasons for free).  By generalizing this incident as a “typical” case of racial profiling, it becomes easier to place it in the context of the larger issues of racial discrimination that linger in our country.  However, generalizing also obsfucates the complexities of race relations, and in particular the many subtle (and not-so-subtle) fears, expectations and projections many Americans internalize in our largely racially segregated society.

I did some of my own self-reflection while reading coverage of the Gates incident that revealed subtle racial biases and white-centric perspectives in my own thinking.  Take for example a quote from Paul Butler, associate dean and professor of law at George Washington University, in the New York Times Opinon piece on the Gates case:

“Professor Gates might not have been arrested if he’d been more submissive — let the cop win the masculinity contest.” 

My reaction (as a white man) is: Heck yeah, one should always defer to the police!  C’mon –  they’re big, they have guns, they can call up other big friends on their CBs – and they can arrest you.  However, I do not have the instinct (as a white man) that cops would exhibit any (negative) racist behavior toward me.  Prof. Gates, on the other hand, had a different reaction –  “I was in danger” – prompting his defensive behavior toward Sgt. Crowley.  It is well-known that fear is a common instinct among minorities in their interactions with police, the consequence of racism spanning generations.   Not sharing this instinct means that I have a subtle racial bias in interpretting the Gates story.

The Gates incident presents an opportunity to have the kind of race dialogues that the election of President Obama should have facilitated but never really happened.  Because the details of the incident are murky, we fill in the holes  with our beliefs – and prejudices.  I encourage you to discuss your interpretation of the Gates incident with friends and family – or the guy sitting next to you at the bar – and see where your prejudices really lie.  In this manner we may truly achieve a “post-racial” America.

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