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Race Men

July 23, 2009

The arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his Cambridge, Mass. home on charges of disorderly conduct, which were later dropped, has inflamed racial passions in a nation some commentators were starting to suggest had entered a post-racial era. Whether or not Sgt. James Crowley’s decision to arrest Professor Gates was predicated on racial prejudice remains a matter of conjecture and opinion since no one else seems to have witnessed the exchange.

As they say, where you stand on questions surrounding this case probably depends a lot on where you sit. Despite these questions, we should all agree that the arrest was unwise and quite possibly unjustified. I will explain why.

The undisputed facts of the case suggest a neighbor reported suspicious activity to police when she witnessed Professor Gates forcing his front door open with his shoulder. Gates had just returned from a long trip to China, and had arrived home from the airport in a taxi. When police arrived, Gates was inside his home, and the police sergeant entered the dwelling without a warrant or Gates’s permission. At the request of Sgt. Crowley, Professor Gates produced copies of two identification documents, at least one of which clearly indicated the address of the incident was his residence. Despite different accounts as to what words were exchanged and how they were presented, the two parties agree that the issue of race came up.

Although Sgt.  Crowley entered the professor’s residence without a warrant, he appears to have acted upon the reasonable and well-founded believe that a crime was in progress and his actions were legally justified. Professor Gates’s response, even if it has heated, arose not simply from the fact his presence in his own home was being challenged by a white police officer, but also that he was exhausted after an arduous and lengthy journey and frustrated at having to force his way into his own home.

Sgt. Crowley is an experienced and respected police officer who teaches cultural awareness courses to fellow police officers. Colleagues, including African-American cops, have vouched for his integrity and expressed doubt that racial bias or prejudices motivated his actions in this or other incidents. Indeed, no one has come forward to suggest otherwise.

Professor Gates is an internationally-respected scholar of racial issues. He has established himself as a highly public figure as well as a distinguished academic.  Some of his courses, like those of Sgt. Crowley, address the subject of racial profiling among police.

Despite their common interest in issues of race involving police, I doubt very much that the two take the same approach to teaching this subject.  I also suspect that their differences, like those in their accounts of the situation inside Professor Gates’s home, have more to do with their respective roles than their particular races.

Like nearly every other American, both men have personally experienced the highly divisive and emotionally heated debate surrounding race in America. But I doubt either of them has had much of occasion to be personally involved in a heated exchange in their own home where the subject came up under otherwise stressful circumstances.

Gates’s frustration at being confronted in his own home was certainly not a product of his race, but rather reflected the conditions he experienced prior to his encounter with Sgt. Crowley.  For his part, Sgt. Crowley was probably anxious when he entered the home alone searching for someone he reasonably suspected might be engaged in criminal activity.  When the two came in contact with one another, they became engaged in a situation neither expected nor wanted. As a consequence, I suspect both men responded in less mature and appropriate fashions than either would probably have considered appropriate in a less stressful situation.

Even so, Professor Gates has a right to express his exhaustion, frustration, and even anger in his own home, even if it is directed at a police officer. Neither party has suggested they felt intimidated or in danger of physical violence at any point. As such, the responsibility for acting reasonably still rested squarely with Sgt. Crowley.  He is morally and legally obliged to consider the context, not a person’s race, when making a decision to deprive them of their liberty. In this situtation, it seems clear to me he over-reacted and as a result over-reached his lawful authority by arresting Professor Gates.

It might do both men a lot of good to apologize to one another and to us for making race an issue in this case, especially in light of the evidence that other factors played a much more prominent role in what went down. If they’re willing to acknowldge they both acted without adequate control of their emotions, we could agree that the tendency to act in haste or out of frustration is not inspired by or a product of one’s race, but rather is endemic to the human condition.

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