We whites tend to view incidents like this one between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department as an event to be judged without awareness of the way whites in this country have treated blacks for some three hundred years. The result is a plethora of blog comments from whites deriding Gates for not behaving respectfully toward an officer of the law and concluding, as did Sgt. Crowley, himself, that Gates deserved to be handcuffed and arrested. End of story.
The story begins with a 911 call early in the afternoon of July 21, 2009, when Lucia Whalen, a white woman who works at the Harvard alumni magazine just up the street from the Gates residence was stopped by an elderly person who drew her attention to two men, who turned out to be Gates and his driver from a private cab service, pushing hard at a front door that had become sticky no doubt from the humid weather. Whalen could not identify them as "white, black or Hispanic" when asked by the dispatcher. She reported that the men had gotten into the house and that she had seen two suitcases on the porch that indicated to her that they might live there. The dispatcher asked her to remain on the scene.
After Whalen's call and before Crowley arrived, the driver carried Gates's luggage into the house since Gates has to use a cane, then came out and drove off. Gates immediately got on his cell phone to let Harvard know that the door needed repairs.
Crowley writes in his report that he talked with Whelan and she told him "she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch" and "that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry." (Whelan through her attorney denies that she used "black" in describing the two men. This seems accurate since she could not categorize them in her 911 call).
Why didn't Crowley draw his weapon in going up onto the porch if a burglary was in process? Does he already know from what Whelan tells him, but doesn't put in his report, that one man is already out of the picture?
Gates, identified in the police report as weighing 150 pounds and standing at 5 feet seven, answered the door with cell phone in hand. He knows nothing about the call to report a burglary and is disconcerted to find a police officer at his door, asking for ID that shows this is his residence.
[First note: Ii is perfectly legal for a person in this country who is standing in his or her own home to refuse to produce an ID unless a warrant is attached. Gates refuses. He wants to see Crowley's ID.]
Now, several years ago, an article appeared in my local paper, written by an ex-trooper, who wanted readers to understand that in interacting with police such as being pulled over by highway patrol they are dealing with two powerful emotions on the part of the officer: fear and ego.
It seems logical, then, that when Gates refuses Crowley's request, Crowley's gets his back up. With white/black interactions, there is a superiority/inferiority phenomenon at work in the white consciousness "" the legacy of slavery that dictates that blacks, being inferior by way of having been slaves (!), must comply with white demands.
All whites who grow up in this country are racists to a greater or lesser degree. As Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist activist and educator, recently pointed out on cable TV, we have to learn to check out our attitudes and perceptions about race when they pop into our consciousness. He cited a personal example that occurred when he had boarded an airplane and while waiting for take-off saw two uniformed black men head into the cockpit. His immediate reaction was, "Oh! My God! Can they really fly this plane?" For obvious reasons, he had to recognize that his reaction was racist garbage.
Crowley teaches racial profiling at the police academy. In my town, as in too many other places, local officers routinely stop black men for the "crime" of DWB (Driving While Black). Some officers even follow these drivers to their homes.
The code in the black community warns that it is dangerous to be other than excessively polite and to use "sir" frequently when stopped by police. In other words, one must re-enforce the superiority/inferiority relationship. Because if you don't, you may be arrested. Or end up dead. Black people do not survive in this society behaving in the same way that we whites do. The person on "shoplifting" duty at Stop & Shop does not target us, for instance, the minute we step into the store. Our integrity as to who we are and what we are doing is not being constantly questioned