As I follow the media coverage of Professor Henry Gates' arrest outside his Cambridge home, I have two recurring thoughts:
1. How tragic it is that this happened to a scholar as accomplished as Gates and a police officer with as much integrity as James Crowley
2. How wonderful it is that these were the very people involved
I'll get back to #2 in a minute, but first I want to make clear that I don't want to get into a who was right and who was wrong debate. Reasonable people will disagree on that. Perhaps Gates should have been more deferential. Perhaps his outrage at the indignity of the situation in the context of hundreds of years of Black oppression (including countless well-documented incidents of police brutality) was justified and appropriate, heroic even. Or perhaps he just lost his cool and acted badly. Who among us hasn't? Perhaps Crowley, as the trained professional on the scene, should have acted with more restraint and left the home as soon as he verified that Gates was the legal occupant. Perhaps he honestly felt threatened by Gates' hostility or felt that letting the hostile comments go by would show weakness or even condone verbal abuse of police officers. I don't know. I wasn't there. And even if I were, I still wouldn't necessarily know what they were thinking at the time. My purpose here is not to judge anyone's behavior but rather to try to make sense of what happened and why, as well as to consider how the unfortunate series of events can be turned into something positive.
Which brings me back to thought #2 and how fortunate it is that the principle players were these two particular men. If the occupant of the home had been a blue-collar African-American man who acted the same way, this wouldn't be a national story. It might not even make the local news. And if it did, both the arresting officer and the occupant would be de-identified, as in "police today responded to an unlawful entry complaint that led to the arrest of 58-year-old [insert name here]..." The race of the men would either not be mentioned or just inserted as an identifier: "...the African American resident of Cambridge was apparently returning from a trip when..." Even those listening to the broadcast would miss the significance of the incident. If anything, the news story would merely confirm many Americans' stereotype of the hostile (if not criminal) Black male.
Or consider if the police officer who arrived at the scene and arrested Gates was a Mark Fuhrman type with a history of making racial epithets. Then what we'd have is another story of black victimization at the hands of racially biased law enforcement. Not trivial. And certainly newsworthy. But also easy to dismiss as "other people's racism" the kind that has nothing to do with us.
What makes this story both compelling and meaningful is the decency of the men involved. Gates' academic accomplishments speak for themselves, but he also has a reputation for being thoughtful and soft-spoken. Similarly, from everything I've read, Crowley is an exemplary officer who serves as an instructor on racial profiling and who is described by numerous police officers, including African-Americans, as a good and fair officer. Given his history, I take Crowley at his word that he is not a racist and did not consciously act out of racial malice.
And yet, despite many suggestions to the contrary, this was, in fact, a racial incident. What happened did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred in a sociopolitical context, and given the history of race relations in this country (not to mention recent events in Cambridge), it is simply not possible for what happened to not have racial overtones. Since both Gates and Crowley deal with racism and racial issues professionally, they must have both been all too aware of the racialized elements surrounding a white police officer investigating the behavior of a Black suspect who turns out to be acting lawfully. Crowley was just doing his job when he arrived at Gates' house, but once Gates established his identity and legal residence, Crowley's behavior was discretionary. He could have apologized for the intrusion. He could have just left. Even if Gates was agitated. Even if Gates talked about his mother. Or he could have, as he actually did, warn Gates and then arrest him for disorderly conduct. This doesn't make him racist or a bad person, or even misguided or uninformed. I don't have any reason to believe he is any of those things.
But I also have reason to believe that decent, fair, non-racist people behave differently with different racial groups, often (usually!) without having the awareness that they are doing so. Dozens of psychological studies document how fair-minded individuals behave with racial bias (interested readers can see some of the research here) and that they are most likely to do so when emotions run hot and when the situation is ambivalent, two conditions that characterized this particular incident.
It is this type of aversive racism that was depicted so well in the 2006 Academy Award winning film Crash. In that film, officer Tom Hansen (played by Ryan Phillippe), a junior member of the police department, is shown to have made a conscious choice to stand up against racial injustice. He does so in multiple scenes, even with more senior members of the department, and he goes out of his way to make sure that he treats African-Americans with compassion, even under very stressful conditions. Tragically, in a later scene in his squad car, he misinterprets the intention of his passenger (a Black hitchhiker he picked up on a deserted road) and shoots him dead when the passenger reaches into his pocket.
White viewers (even those who identify with a progressive, multicultural racial ideology) tend to believe that race was not a relevant factor. They tend to acknowledge that Officer Hansen acted out of fear, but typically argue that it was the situation that scared Hansen, not the passenger sitting beside him. "If it were a White man sitting next to him," they say, "he would have shot him too, because his reaction was rational under the circumstances, even if it turned out to be misguided." I suggest that officer Hansen's reaction was not at all rational. He didn't point his gun and say "keep your hands where I can see them," and he didn't shoot at the hand that was reaching for the pocket. He shot to kill. "A reflexive act," say those who argue that race played no role in the incident, "He didn't mean to do it." I agree. He didn't. He acted out of a deep, primal fear, a racial fear that would not have been present with a White passenger.
I don't want to overextend the analogy. I don't know how Crowley would react in the fictional scenario above. I'd like to think he'd keep his gun in his holster. But I don't know that he would, at least not with a reasonable amount of certainty. Moreover, the research suggests that Crowley himself can't predict in advance how he'd react in such a scenario, or in the scenario that he actually did find himself in with Gates. I think Crowley probably honestly feels that he did nothing wrong, but I also think that if you asked him last month how he'd handle that kind of situation, he'd describe something very different than how it actually played out. And how it did play out had everything to do with race, maybe not the same kind of racial fear that officer Hansen felt...but a racial something, racial distrust perhaps, or racial resentment. Or perhaps just racial uncertainty or unfamiliarity. Pretend that Gates was a 58-year old white Harvard professor. Just for fun, dress him in a tweed jacket. Think the incident might have played out differently, even if he (Gates) acted the same way? Maybe not, but admit it: It's hard to be sure.
My point is that our behavior is unconsciously influenced by race a lot of the time. What is different here is that we're all paying attention and thinking and talking and writing about it. This is good. These kinds of issues deserve to be thought and talked about, not with judgment but with empathy and consideration. I don't know what it will take to finally have a racially just society, but I'm pretty sure that thinking and talking (and listening) will be involved. Though unintentionally, Gates and Crowley, provided us with a rare opportunity to do that. Here's to hoping they reconcile -- publicly -- and that the rest of us continue to talk and think about the many ways that race impacts our behavior in order that we can ultimately bridge the racial divide.