The Gates Episode




As a single parent of two teenagers, aged only thirteen months apart, I had (over many years) found myself embroiled in seemingly intractable situations. Arguments over the slightest infractions by one or the other were often met with inflexibility.

English: Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates
Image via Wikipedia

When one child would say “white”—spoken with a sense of moral righteousness conferred by the Almighty himself (or herself—must always be mindful of our class), the default exclamation of the other would be “black!”

Knee-jerk reactions, indeed!

Of course, as moderator (or referee, to be more accurate), my task was to try to convince them of a concept that surely seemed foreign to both—“GREY!”

The issue brought up by the Henry Louis Gates arrest reminds me of those frazzled days. Whenever I read two divergent stories, such as in this scenario, the first word that pops into mind is “context.”

A jammed door forced Gates to break into his own house, as neighbor Lucia Whalen related to police. However, it was not just Gates at his front door.

According to the police report , there were two men reported at the front door. It turned out to be Gates and the cab driver who brought him home.

My experience with cab drivers (which is somewhat extensive—spending several years driving a cab) is they have a tendency to look a little shady (myself humbly excluded). Was the “good” neighbor responding to the cab driver and not professor Gates?

It raises another question: “why would a cab driver help a person break into his own house?”

I would hope Harvard professors tip well.

The point becomes that context is the key in this situation. To recap, two men appear to “break into” the home, at least one “with a backpack.” As a point of fact, there was no attempted break-in. By Gates own admission, the door was jammed and he, in fact, had to break into his own house.

Sounds suspicious? Two men… one dressed like a “cab driver” (read ‘shady’)…with backpacks… seemingly breaking into a neighboring home.

I would certainly hope, in those circumstances, a neighbor would call the police. Let the police come! If anybody looks out their window and observed a situation such as that one (regardless of skin color), would you fault them for being apprehensive?

However, that is not the crux of the issue.

From the onset, Professor Gates angrily denounced Officer Crowley as racist for what the officer saw as responding to a suspicious situation. Was Crowley as calm as the police report suggests? Perhaps not. (A police report as an unimpeachable account of the truth? Say it aint so, Joe!)

Crowley, no doubt, was thinking, “What did I just step into?” Initially responding to a burglary call, now confronting an angry man (rightfully so?) who is screaming bloody murder, as well as being very uncooperative. What alternatives was Crowley given?

Should he have asked, “How may I help you sir?” The police report said Crowley never had the chance. It is possible that pride also prevented Crowley from “turning the other cheek” and leaving the scene.

Gates, as a Harvard professor who devoted his entire career to examining race relations, firmly believed the officer was predisposed with a worldview of everyday racism, institutionalized over many years through contending with crime and criminals, no doubt many of them people of color.

However, what else motivated Gates?

Gates insisted he had the moral high ground, and was betting on an overall climate of “white guilt” to shame Crowley into realizing his error in suspecting a “black man in America.”

Gates demonstrated a fallacy that is the heart of modern race relations, both in black power and white guilt. The fallacy comes from faulty logic: Whites suspect all black men. I am a black man. Therefore, I will be suspected. Black power after the mid-sixties reflected the doubt instilled in white America by the realization of that fallacy, leading to a loss of moral authority.

When both blacks and whites are truly comfortable with the notion that “not all blacks are suspects” then we can move forward. However, for some, that means a loss of power. The power deriving solely from the color of one’s skin will diminish. For whites, it is losing power from generations of racial preference.

For blacks after the civil rights era, it is losing a moral high ground that comes from a worldview of continuous victimization.

Maybe the power of someone who devoted his entire career examining race relations as a professor at Harvard?

In his defense, if I were Gates, I would still be pissed off that I had to break into my own house (talk about a bad day!) Nevertheless, Gates’ gambit did not work. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

The issue is in seeing a difficult position through the context of the other participants. Instead of working towards a peaceful resolution, possibly seeing the “grey” in a “black and white” situation, both Gates and Crowley stood adamant in their positions, much like insolent teenagers.

Moreover, the Gates episode goes to show one thing.

When a disagreement opens with a racially fueled shouting match—one participant holding a gun and the right to arrest—it has no choice but to end badly.

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