Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 July 2009

Three Gates


[For an update on July 26, click here.]

Two of the many reasons I admire our President are his brains and his humanity. He is one of the smartest public officials of my lifetime, and he always seems to expect the best of people.

That’s why the President’s two-word description of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest for trying to break into his own home in Cambridge was so apt. The arresting officer, said the President, had “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates for disorderly conduct after Gates had produced two types of ID showing he was in his own home.

How stupid was the arrest? Let me count the ways. First, Gates is a national celebrity. He teaches African-American studies at Harvard, our oldest and arguably most prestigious university. His subject has made him a regular not just in academic circles, but in news circles and on talk shows as well. Google his name, and you will get over 21 million search results, many of them with pictures.

Professor Gates is not only a leader of his community. He is also a nationally known and visible leader as well. You would think a sergeant on the Cambridge police force might at least have some vague awareness of a person that prominent in his own community, which he is sworn to protect and serve.

The second proof of stupidity is the sergeant’s reaction to Gates’ driver’s license. It doesn’t take much intelligence to understand that a burglar is unlikely to have taken the trouble to produce an official-looking false picture ID for each house he targets. Smart police know that burglars pick targets of opportunity on the spur of the moment, based on conditions in the neighborhood, the number of people nearby, and things like unlocked doors and open windows. The very fact of Professor Gates’ ID with his home address showed that he was no burglar.

Third, there’s Gates himself. He’s a bespectacled, bearded, middle-aged professor of slight stature. Every picture I’ve seen of him shows what can only be described as a “sweet” face. He’s hardly a menacing presence, even if he was understandably upset at being accosted as a criminal after enduring the frustration of having to break into his own home after an exhausting trip to China.

Criminals sometimes come in odd packages, but Gates’ appearance and obvious education and refinement would surely be far outside the average police officer’s experience of common criminals. Any officer with brains should have known that this was no ordinary break-in artist.

Finally, there’s the Internet. I don’t know whether Cambridge police carry mobile PCs or have ways of receiving photographs in squad cars. If they don’t, the should. If they do, it would have been a simple matter for the officer to Google Gates, or to have a colleague in HQ do so, and verify Gates’ appearance, description and identity. There’s little excuse today for failing to recognize a guy whose name produces, in seconds, over 21 million search results, many of which include high-resolution pictures.

So stupid the arrest undoubtedly was. But it was also undoubtedly more.

To see how, imagine that we are talking about another Gates. Not Henry, but Bill (the software titan and philanthropist) or Bob (our Secretary of Defense). In either case, the good sergeant would have laughed, commiserated, and offered a few tips on safely sequestering spare keys outside the home. Isn’t that what we all would expect if accosted by police under similar circumstances?

But Professor Gates got far less. He got handcuffs and a trip in a squad car to the police station. If, like me, you find it hard to conceive of any justification for that arrest, you have to ask why. Why Henry, but not Bill or Bob?

The answer, of course, is racial prejudice. It takes more than momentary stupidity to ignore the all the evidence of your own eyes: the slightly built, bespectacled, refined professor, whose face you think you might have seen before, standing before you with picture ID in hand. You have to be more than stupid to ignore all that and see only the tribal badge of skin color. It takes a lifetime of stupidity ingrained into habit, which is precisely what racism is.

It doesn’t help that the greater Boston area (which contains Cambridge) bears the dubious distinction, along with Chicago, of being among the most ethnically balkanized cities in America. It is still a place where a kid, deviating just a couple of blocks on his way home from school, can get harassed or beat up. The ingrained attitudes that made the Cambridge cop so dumb are not confined to race, but they are strongest there. Boston is a place where people take delight in directing strangers to their neighborhoods several blocks or miles out of their way, just for sheer spite.

So if stupidity was all Henry’s arrest was, it was a special kind of stupidity. It was the kind of stupidity that understandably keeps chips on the shoulders of so many of our fellow citizens. It is the kind of stupidity that neglects or underutilizes so much talent of so many who don’t look or speak like the our rapidly vanishing racial majority. It is the kind of stupidity that, every day in ways great and small, undermines the central tenet of our nation, that all of us are created equal. It is a cancer on our body politic.

We rightfully take pride in having overcome that special kind of stupidity long enough to have elected our most promising president in generations. But we’ve got lots more to do.

Those of us who hale from our rapidly vanishing majority of non-Hispanic whites have the obligation to lead the charge to eradicate this special kind of stupidity. Although we are not its targets, it hurts us just the same. And we had damn well better eradicate it before we ourselves become a minority and therefore one of its targets, too.

If we wake up and continue that noble endeavor with renewed vigor, Professor Gates’ stupid arrest may ultimately help make us smarter. But we’re all going to have to work at it and stop fantasizing that we live in a post-racial society. We may get there in another two generations, if we all work at it as hard as we can.

But we’re sure as hell not there yet. If you think we are, just imagine how you would expect to be treated in similar circumstances, and then read the story of what happened to Professor Gates.

Update: Peeling the Onion of Race and Police

As the story of Professor Gates’ unfortunate arrest continues to unfold, we peel back the layers of the onion of racial prejudice and police conduct.

Amidst all the blather, it’s probably useful to recount what didn’t happen. As far as the various public reports reveal, neither Professor Gates nor the police sergeant moved to strike or threaten the other. The officer never drew his weapon.

The confrontation between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley was entirely verbal. Gates reportedly harangued the officer about the daily indignities to which people of color are generally subjected in our far-from-color-blind society.

While his harangue was unfortunate, it is entirely understandable for three reasons. First, having African ancestry makes Gates (like every other person of color) a target of those indignities. Second, studying those indignities, their sources and consequences is a large part of what Gates does for a living. So they are probably never far from his conscious mind. Finally, Gates had just returned from a trip to China. After at least sixteen or so consecutive hours of travel, he was undoubtedly exhausted, jet-lagged, and not in his best form.

Add to the jet lag some sixteen hours of general indignities and regimentation to which all of us, regardless of color, are subject when we travel by air in this post 9-11 world. Then add the further indignity of travel from Logan Airport to Cambridge: a close encounter with carbon monoxide in the Logan Tunnel, which (though less severe after the Big Dig) is still one of the nation’s worst. Finally, throw in a jammed front door to Gates’ home, probably the result of a real attempt at burglary while he was gone, and you have some small idea of the state of Gates’ mind when Sergeant Crowley arrived on the scene.

The confrontation apparently started when Sergeant Crowley told Gates to step outside. The accounts do not report Gates’ precise reply, but it probably was something like, “No, I won’t. This is my home.”

Had Sergeant Crowley lightened up at that point, you wouldn't be reading this post. Nor would our President be going through verbal contortions trying to get our addled brains focused back on our most exigent issues: health-care and energy-policy reform.

But Crowley is apparently one of those cops who believe that establishing his own personal authority, especially over people of color, is more important than winding down a harmless verbal confrontation, in which nothing but feelings were injured. Relying on the authority of his uniform and ultimately his weapon, he established his primate dominance by putting the exhausted and frustrated Gates in the squad car and taking him away.

We can dispense with the endless speculation whether Crowley would have done the same with a 100% white man. (I say 100% white because most of our African-Americans are part white, and Gates’ light hue suggests the same of him.) I think not.

But in any event two things are clear. First, at some time before being carted away in the squad car, Gates showed Crowley no less than two ID cards verifying his identity. One (probably his Massachusetts driver’s license) showed the address of the home in which he was standing.

Second, Sergeant Crowley was sworn and trained to keep the peace. Gates was trained and employed to be sensitive to and expose precisely the sort of indignities that he was experiencing at that very moment. I might add that police are selected and trained to have nerves of steel; professors generally are not.

So I would say that Gates was doing his job, even off duty, while Crowley was not. And as there is no report that Crowley was on a second shift, there can be little debate about which man was better circumstanced to keep his head.

The New York Times had a fine report yesterday on the two types of police officers that populate our protective forces. One sees discipline, respect for authority and control as paramount at all times. It takes no lip from citizens, especially not from those of color. The other sees taking verbal abuse as part of the job, as long as no one gets hurt.

There is little doubt in my mind which type represents the future of policing in our highly mobile and diverse society. Martinets and authoritarians had their place in the British Empire, but that century is long gone. Whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or on the streets or our cities, quickness of understanding and human compassion are far more important than quickness with the handcuffs or on the draw.

Sergeant Crowley may be a fine man, as some say. He probably did not attain the rank of sergeant without having put his life in jeopardy to arrest criminals and protect the innocent. But he apparently lacks the skill and judgment to avoid turning an exhausted professor’s attempt to enter his own home and get some much-needed sleep into an agonizing national controversy.

If it were up to me, I’d see that Crowley and those like him have fine careers at internal desk jobs, interacting with their police colleagues, but not with the public. If his ilk disappeared from positions of armed authority on our cities’ streets, chips on the shoulders of many worthy people of color would soon follow.

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