While I was eating lunch recently, I overheard a conversation at the table next to me. Four older gentlemen were in a deep discussion about the July 16 Cambridge, Mass., incident between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley — as well as the remarks President Barack Obama made at his press conference last Wednesday (which he later amended).
These guys were all white and probably in their ’60s; essentially they sided with the police officer, although there were incidental comments that indicated a bit of understanding as to why Gates was angry. It was an interesting conversation that has probably been repeated at water coolers and lunch counters all over America. And it is all clearly instructional in regard to race relations in America.
You see, in this incident, everybody is right and everybody is wrong, all at the same time. Much like a lot of racially charged issues that this country deals with.
Someone calls the cops
Professor Gates is jimmying his own locked door because he left his keys somewhere. Someone calls the police regarding this “suspicious” behavior — probably understandable, white or black. But when the police arrive, Gates doesn’t see a routine investigation by the police. He sees a white police officer assuming the worst in the behavior of a black man. The professor is a black man in America. A man who has seen the worst in racial bigotry — indeed a man who has studied all the aspects of racial relations in America. A man who has hair-trigger assumptions running around in his head based on real-life experiences. He gets angry — not just at this police officer, but at the injustices that relate to racial confrontations between black America and law enforcement.
Sgt. James Crowley is called in to do a routine investigation of a possible burglary. He has unique qualifications in race relations — he taught a class on racial profiling. All he knows as he approaches the house is that somebody tried to enter the house without a key. The man he confronts is black — and as a police officer he understands the inherent suspicion of police in the African-American community. He starts out calmly, but the man becomes angry quickly. It becomes clear that the man is who he says he is, but the belligerence continues and escalates. As a police officer, he must regain control of the situation.
And then there is President Barack Obama. Not just an aloof arbiter of opinion but also a black man in America. And a black man who knows Gates personally. It is difficult not to weigh in on such a situation that the president knows has meaning to the racial norms of a complicated society.
It is the perfect confluence of the racial divide — and we must learn from this; we must.
Gates was right in his indignation. He was within his rights as a property owner. His rights to go about his own business.
Sgt. Crowley was right in his investigation. His approach would have been the same if the person in question had been white, black, Latino, whatever. He allowed for some anger and name calling, but he could not let it escalate.
And the president was right to weigh in on the matter. It is his signature issue — it is what he wants to heal in America. He knows Gates, and he can relate personally to the issue.
But Gates was also wrong in letting his righteous indignation get out of hand. He could have simply left it as an embarrassing nondescript incident. He could have filed a formal complaint and waited for the explanations and details to come. But he couldn’t do that — he just couldn’t.
Could have walked away
And Sgt. Crowley was wrong to arrest the professor. He could have taken the name calling, the unfair accusations, and the racially charged tone and walked away. It was unfair, but it could be explained — it could all be dealt with later. He could just leave with no harm done.
And President Obama was wrong to make a judgment without all the facts. He forgot the first rule of being president — don’t let it get too personal. Don’t talk about a friend, don’t talk about your innermost feelings in a very public setting. Allow it to be a teaching moment but wait for the right time and place. (He clearly thought better of his words later; he made a second statement on Friday backtracking somewhat on his news-conference comments.)
They were all right and all wrong at the same time.
Race in America is complicated with too much extreme history that will always cloud our judgment. Even the best of us — as these three most certainly are — can succumb to the demons of race.
I hope we can all learn something here. We have to.
David Mindeman, of Apple Valley, is a community activist and blogger for mnpACT!