The Police, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Racial Profiling

I know the controversy is just beginning.  Volumes will be written about the incident in Cambridge.  Both sides will defend themselves and blame the other side.  Everyone will play the race card.  People who already mistrust President Obama because of his skin color will use his remarks as proof they are right.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the incident so far is from Joan Vennochi writing this morning in the Boston Globe.  In her regular op-ed column Vennochi wrote

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a Cambridge police officer is playing out along racial lines. But it’s also about power and machismo – on both sides.

Machismo.  That’s the key.  Gates, whether true or not, felt he was being treated differently than a white man would be in his own home.  Years of disparate treatment combined with the ego that comes from being an important and respected person in your field, caused him to lose his temper.  The police sergeant, James Crowley, faced with a potential break-in and a tired angry man reacted, not by backing down, but by arresting him.

Gates was in his own home when a Cambridge police officer responded to a call about a possible break-in at that address. The professor had just returned home from filming a documentary in China. His front door was stuck shut and his taxi driver helped him pry it open. Then, Sergeant James Crowley appeared at his door and demanded to see identification. Gates provided it, although some facts about how and when are in dispute.

The police report states that Gates was arrested after exhibiting “loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was investigating a report of a crime in progress.’’ Gates disputes some information provided in the police report, but does acknowledge that he responded with anger.

Human beings of all races have a tendency to react as Gates did, especially when they are tired, frustrated, and privileged. Police officers usually don’t like it. The question is whether this police officer responded more harshly because of skin color.

The answer isn’t obvious, but both men could use some sensitivity training. Gates shouldn’t have yelled at the police officer; still, what he did was irritating, not criminal. Once the officer determined Gates did live in the house, he should have left, no matter what the professor was shouting.

Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer, civil liberties defender, and Harvard Law School graduate, believes Gates’s arrest should be investigated, but not only because of its racial implications: Was Gates arrested and held as a way to teach him a lesson? If so, asks Silverglate, “Is this acceptable, regardless of whether the citizen is white or black?’’

In an ideal world, no. When it happens to a black man, racism may be the easy explanation, but that doesn’t make it the only explanation. Life and power in 21st-century America are more complicated than that.

President Obama at his July 22 press conference offered this

Wednesday night’s press conference seemed to be a different deal as the president leaped into a highly charged controversy that has ignited passions across talk radio, the blogosphere and the old-fashioned water cooler.

But in fact, racial profiling was a major issue for Mr. Obama when he was in the Illinois legislature. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial profiling.

Mr. Obama, asked Wednesday what the incident said about race relations in America, noted up front that Professor Gates is a friend and that his comments might be biased. He said “words” had been exchanged and added:

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.” He added later that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”

He also used biting humor, grinning broadly as he imagined being in Professor Gates’s seemingly preposterous circumstance of being arrested after trying to get into his own home.

“Here, I’d get shot,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his new address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The whole racial profiling question becomes curiouser and curiouser as we learn that the officer involved spent time at the police academy teaching racial profiling.

I heard a discussion this morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in which Joe Scarborough talked about the serious question of racial profiling and admitted that he would have probably had a similar reaction to Dr. Gates’ and likely would not have been arrested.  Perhaps what we need is a discussion of racial profiling and we can begin with a civil dialogue between Sergeat Crowley and Dr. Gates – an expert police profiler and one who has been profiled.  They both need to lose their machismo and have a serious talk.  No one would have to lose face and no one needs to apologize. Oh and yes, as Joan Vennochi suggested let’s throw in some sensitivity training.