I have to confess a character flaw of mine: I tend to take what people say at face value. That is to say, I trust their motives until they give me a reason to think otherwise. Generally, there is no harm in trying to see people’s best intentions. But a healthy dose of skepticism is sometimes warranted, lest an individual try to be manipulative. Or, to put it another way: how does one interact with an antagonist without compromising one’s own integrity?
Last week, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was returning from a trip overseas and had arrived at his house in Cambridge, Mass. He was locked out, so he had to break in—not an unusual circumstance (I sure contemplated doing it on one occasion). Unfortunately, a neighbor called police to report two black men possibly breaking and entering, prompting a police officer to respond. What happened next is disputed, and I assume that the information is coming largely from the police perspective; out of objective fairness, I will say simply that both parties probably could have handled the situation a little less antagonistically.
The officer arrived and asked Gates to step outside the house. Gates was incredulous, considering that he was the homeowner. The officer came inside and Gates proffered his ID, then asked for the officer’s name and badge number. The officer did not comply and apparently walked outside, whereupon Gates followed him, asking, “Is this how you treat a black man in America?” and “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” Gates was arrested for “disorderly conduct”, with the police report saying that the professor was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior.”
Now, let’s get to the allegations. Gates figures he was singled out unfairly as a black man living in a predominantly white neighborhood. He assumes that because he was black, he was presumed guilty. His treatment was exacerbated, in his mind, because he thinks he is a professional, well-respected and well-recognized academic who should have been treated with deference. In the words of Professor Lawrence Bobo, “this situation was about the level of deference that a white cop expects from a black man. According to his own written report, this officer understood he was dealing with a lawful resident of the house when he made the arrest and was no longer concerned about the report of a ‘burglary in progress’….”
In short the episode can be summed up in one hypothesis: since Gates was black, he was treated more harshly than had he been white. If Gates were an upper class white male, the police would not have looked for cause to arrest him in his own home.
You know, I actually see less of a race issue at play here than a class issue. When he was arrested, Gates was sharply dressed and looked, well, professorial. Middle and upper class people probably don’t have much interaction with the police. Neither do most lower class people—probably—but for the opposite reason: since crime is more prevalent in depressed areas, they are used to neglect from the authorities and probably have little reason to trust them, and even less to interact with them.
Upper class people see the police as service employees: people who respond quickly to burglaries and murders and who show respect to the more upstanding members of society because of their material and professional worth. As with most people who feel slighted when they feel that their importance is not being recognized, Gates’s reaction was one of, “How dare you! Do you know who I am?” We saw this a couple of years ago with Cynthia McKinney, a black congresswoman from Georgia, who struck a Capitol security guard after he did not recognize who she was.
I am not alleging that there are not law enforcement personnel who seek to aggrandize their authority unfairly. I am also aware that some of these people may indeed be more prejudiced toward other races. But I also recognize that most of these men and women are risking their lives every day: being put into situations with potentially dangerous, armed, or enraged individuals. They must constantly choose between respecting civil rights and protecting their own lives and the lives of others.
Try to see this through the officer’s eyes: you are tipped off on a possible burglary. You arrive at the home with the suspect inside the house. You ask him to step outside and he refuses. He shows you identification and demands to know what right you have barging in. You retreat to the door and he accuses you of racism. Both of you are now out in public and this irate man is causing a scene. “Disorderly conduct” probably encompasses worse activities than being grumpy at a police officer; but it is a relatively benign and applicable charge nonetheless.
As a civil rights scholar, Gates was right to question the institutional racism that is implied when a black man who is well off is considered suspect. But he also should have recognized that many black, Latino, or white individuals living in poor areas would be grateful if the police responded so quickly to a distress call. As a white male living in a college town and dressed in my “street clothes,” I would wish that the police would not catch me in the act of breaking into my house, if it became necessary. However, I would not feel put off if they did. That means that the system works.
I think the system worked here. I would like to think the officer was just doing his job, and I’d also like to think that Gates really was only perceiving discrimination. Maybe one of them will admit he was wrong, but I feel that the larger discussion of race in America will be hindered by this one instance of mutual miscommunication.