Cambridge has witnessed quite a brouhaha this week with the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Barack Obama weighed in during his press conference last evening, calling out the arresting officer, a white man named James Crowley, for behaving "stupidly." Ouch!
Why I empathize with Gates:
• He had just returned home after a long flight from China.
• There aren't a lot of black men in China. I'm sure he stuck out like a sore thumb.
• After landing at the airport he had to deal with (a) the international arrivals line. (B) Then the customs line. (C) The baggage carousel. Arriving home after an international flight sucks.
• There was no loved one to pick him up at the airport. He was brought home by a hired driver (also a black man).
• When he gets home, he can't get his door open, so he's forced to bust in. How frustrating is this?
• Within minutes, he's confronted by cops, who force him to prove he's not a common criminal.
• He never physically struck any member of the investigating force.
• It's not a crime to express anger and frustration at a false accusation.
Why I empathize with Sgt. Crowley:
• He's been a police officer for many years, with a stellar record.
• He knows that most breaking-and-entering cases occur during daylight hours.
• He's received a call reporting two black men trying to break open a door in Cambridge – he's got to take this seriously.
• He questions Gates, who claims to live in the house, in order to ascertain if he's telling the truth.
• Gates is incredibly belligerent during the entire incident.
• Crowley is presumably a proud man, and doesn't feel the need to apologize for doing his job.
• Crowley has spent his entire professional life being screamed at, harassed, beaten, kicked, and spat upon, simply for being a cop, and he completely lost his cool.
In reality, both men exercised racial profiling during this incident. Crowley was all-to-ready to believe a black man had broken into a nice house in Cambridge. Gates was all-to-ready to believe a white cop was an innate racist, hell-bent on harassing an innocent black man. Both men have ample reason to believe what they each believed. But the way they behaved doesn't advance us as Americans.
Racial profiling is unavoidable; it's human nature. It's a two-edged sword: it can serve us well, but it can reveal our worst demons.
It would be good for Gates and Crowley to hold a joint press conference to apologize to one another. Crowley could apologize for making a brilliant black scholar feel like a criminal in his own home, and then arresting the stressed, jet-lagged professor for losing his cool. And Gates could apologize for branding a white cop as a racist, and aggressively taunting and provoking an overworked, underpaid who was only trying to do his job. How inspiring would it be to see each of these men get to know one another on a personal level?
It would also be good for budding white police officers to put their butts on a plane, and spend some time in Africa. Walk around for a little while. Feel the stares. Avert your eyes from the hustlers trying to size you up. Imagine what it would feel like to get arrested. It might help you understand black folk trying to live in America a little bit better.