Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black Professor vs. White Cop...A Powder Keg That Exploded

It was quite shocking to see the initial pictures of Professor Henry Louis Gates in handcuffs outside his house in Cambridge. If you're making a Mount Rushmore of Black Scholars he is certainly part of the discussion. As the details of the incident between Professor Gates and Seargent Crowley have come out, it has become more and more clear that this case was going to have staying power because of the profile of Dr. Gates. Now the President has gotten involved and managed to breathe more life into the flame before coming to his senses and moving as quickly as possible to squelch it so he can get back to pushing his Health Care Plan, a plan that is taking heavy fire from BOTH sides of the ailse. Let me break down each party involved so we can learn what NOT to do the next time a high profile Black intellectual has trouble getting into his house, and maybe start that REAL conversation on race I hear people talk about, but never engage in.

Professor Gates you had every right to be mad when the police showed up at your door talking about a robbery when all that really happened was that you had to force your way into your house after the door malfunctioned, but you should have also realized that from someone else's vantage point it could have legitimately looked like you were breaking in, and walking the cops through that would have kept the situation from escalating. I recently took a class on the LAPD, and four seargents audited the class to add insight from the field. What I took away from the course is that officers are trained not to take anything for granted when they are called to a scene, if they do, they are liable to end up leaving that scene in a bag. Dr. Gates, your alleged answer to Officer Crowley's request for you to identify yourself should not have been "Why because I'm a black man in America?" as noted in the police reports of both officers. I know there have been times that I've had to break into my own house as a teenager, and I was well aware how it might have looked to anyone passing by. I can see where you were trying to exert some of the privilege you have earned as a Harvard professor, but you took it too far by apparently failing to realize that the Officer was just trying to do his job. I must also say that I'm very surprised that you would go on CNN and say that this incident helped you realize "How vulnerable all Black men are." Really? Then I'm glad you got this awakening now, so that you can channel some of your considerable intellect into addressing issues of race and power that Black men deal with on a daily basis.

From all reports, I find little fault with your initial approach to this situation. The tipping point for you was simple. Despite the low level of cooperation you allegedly received from Dr. Gates, once you established that this elderly man was the lawful occupant of the home, then it was time to walk away. Eliminating threat is job #1 of an officer, and the threat was gone after Professor Gates produced his identification. If you couldn't calm him down, then perhaps Officer Figueroa should have tried, or one of the other officers who had arrived on the scene. Perhaps despite your record as a decorated officer, something that Professor Gates said ticked you off, and you decided he needed to be taught a lesson. Who knows, but in your position, you are held to a higher standard of being able to do what's right so that a situation does not escalate and you didn't. Neither did your colleagues for that matter, and that is disappointing.

When initially asked about the incident in a press conference where you were supposed to be talking about Health Care, you did the smart thing and admitted your bias towards Dr. Gates and noted that you didn't have all the facts. Given your bias, you should have stopped right there until you either talked to Gates or gotten a briefing from an aide. As soon as you went on to say that you felt the Cambridge Police had acted "stupidly", it was like you poured water on a grease fire. As President, you don't get to use words like "stupid" and "dumb" when describing situations like you're at the crib with your homies. Your position requires that you go for adjectives like "inappropriate" or "insensitive" as if you were still editing the Harvard Law Review. You did this on Friday when you readressed the issue, but the damage was already done. Now instead of being able to hammer Republicans about Health Care and make sure your Democratic supporters have your back, you've had to arrange a Happy Hour Picnic to put this story to bed.

For all those who try to spin this incident into something that has nothing to do with race, spare me. As the President noted in his initial press conference, there is a long history across the nation anecdotally and statistically about racial profiling. If you think that the race of Professor Gates and his driver had nothing to do with Ms. Whalen calling the police, you need to wake up. If you think that Officer Crowley made no initial judgment of Dr. Gates based on his race, the same is true. We all carry biases and prejudices based on our lived experiences as "raced" and ethnic beings. And please don't try to argue that Officer Crowley was above bias because he taught a workshop on racial profiling which he was selected to do by a Black Police Commissioner. Just because he can mechanically teach and understand the concept, does not mean that he's incapable of exhibiting racist behavior, especially when he's being called a "racist police officer". Issues of power, class, and race are laced all through this incident and only when people stop trying to look the other way and face it will we be able to have real conversations on race that help us all move forward in our understandings of one another.

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