One of my former students emailed me today and asked what I thought about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. by a white Cambridge police officer last week. I’d already discussed the issue on Facebook, and considered writing about it in here, but then felt fatigued, especially after all the controversy around that LIAR cover. Tonight the 911 tapes were released, and we hear Officer Crowley saying Gates showed his ID, clearly lived in the house, but was being “uncooperative,” so “keep the cars coming.” Skip Gates–over 50, of small stature, walks with a cane–versus this officer and his partner, and the officer wanted “back-up”? The perceived threat is simply unbelievable. I’m getting worked up now, but I just came across an insightful essay online, and figure I should at the very least share it with those who claim to want to change race relations in this country. If you don’t already know about Tim Wise, check out his website and/or invite him to come give a talk at your school, church, or local library. He has written several books about race in America and white privilege in particular, and when I reach my limit with unconscious racists, I turn them onto Tim. I’ve said before, I think, that I don’t believe it’s my job to educate whites about race. I mean, when I’m acting as a professor, it literally IS my job, but in the day to day I generally feel that that’s work whites need to do among, for, and by themselves. Often it’s hard for whites to really HEAR what people of color are saying; there’s a lot of ignorance and defensiveness that gets in the way, and people of color end up having to contain or suppress their emotion just so we don’t get dismissed as “hostile” or “hysterical” or “too angry.” So if you’re one of those people who was really taken aback by the LIAR controversy (it pissed me off, but I can’t say I was actually surprised), and you’re serious about making a change and/or educating yourself (can’t do one without the other), then do take a look at Tim Wise’s website and this substantive article, “Denial Is a River, Wider Than the Charles: Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge” (which can be found on his blog link). Here’s a little of what he has to say:
If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.
To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.
Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned.
But to most black folks, their frame or lens is entirely different, and not because they are irrational or hypersensitive (which is what many whites assume, sadly) but because their experiences with law enforcement are, frankly, different than those typically enjoyed by whites. Far too many African Americans, and many other persons of color, have experienced mistreatment at the hands of police, no matter their behavior (1). For instance, they are, according to all available evidence, more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, even though, when stopped, they are less likely to have drugs on them than whites (2). In other words, even when they have done nothing wrong, the suspicion that they are up to no good causes cops to disproportionately suspect them of wrongdoing and then treat them as criminals until proven otherwise. In addition, there have been numerous examples in recent years of black and brown folks–mostly men but some women as well–who have been killed by police, even though they posed no threat to the officers, and were unarmed. Although these tragedies have happened to white folks too, such occurrences are far less common.
So for African Americans, the possibility that racism was involved in the Gates incident is more than an idle suspicion. First, they wonder, understandably, whether or not the white woman who initially expressed alarm about the two men on Gates’s porch, and then got the second woman to call police would have done so had the two men she saw trying to enter Gates’s residence been white: one in a suit (the driver) and the other casually but well dressed, with gray hair, in his late 50s, as with Gates. There is no way to know for sure. But it’s not a crazy question, and given the evidence from years of research, suggesting that whites are more likely to perceive ambiguous behavior by blacks as criminal or aggressive, than we are for other whites, it is a question backed up by social science as well.