Yesterday, Harvard professor and executive editor of The Root Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested outside his home after a neighbor called the police upon observing "two black males with backpacks" breaking in the front door. The two men were apparently Gates and his driver, returning home from the airport, and they were trying to force open the door to Gates' home after it had become stuck.
There are significant differences between Gates' account and that of the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. Crowley claims Gates became belligerent and called him a racist; Gates says that the officer refused to identify himself and that he was lured out of his house and then arrested -- he doesn't claim that the comments attributed to him in the police report are false.
The significant issue here, it seems to me, is whether or not Gates showed both his Harvard ID and driver's license as he claims -- Crowley claims he showed only his Harvard ID. Yet, Crowley does not claim to have felt as though he was in danger, and says he believes that Gates was being truthful about it being his residence. So I don't really understand why Crowley stuck around to be yelled at, and it makes me uncomfortable that someone can simply be arrested for the crime of saying nasty things to a police officer under the auspices of "disorderly conduct." I'm not aware of the clause in the First Amendment that exempts police officers from angry criticism. Gates' reaction, if the police report is accurate, may have been inappropriate, but it was understandable, given that he was being accused of breaking into his own home. But if he was arrested simply because Crowley was angry or embarrassed at being mistreated, I don't think that's a defensible reaction.
What really disturbs me though, is the fact that Gates' own neighbor didn't recognize him. Regardless of who is ultimately at fault in the encounter between Gates and Sgt. Crowley, the most frightening thing is that a Harvard professor could be mistaken for a burglar by his own neighbor. I'm not ascribing malice here -- it's the nature of race that people react to it without forethought -- but the idea that a black man can be mistaken for a criminal trying to enter his own house in his own neighborhood should remind us all that we're hardly living in a post-racial paradise. I find it highly unlikely that this incident would have occurred at all had Gates been white, and I can imagine the entire situation degenerating into something horribly tragic had Gates not been middle aged, had he not been a college professor, and had this not occurred a nice neighborhood in Cambridge.
I also can't help thinking of Sonia Sotomayor -- her association with a Puerto Rican civil rights group, PRLDEF -- that fought racial profiling was presented by Republican senators as "radical," even as these same legislators quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and pontificated about not judging people as the color of their skin. Yet for some reason, Sotomayor's association with a group that battles racial profiling was denigrated. Herein lies the double-standard: These Republican senators believe in color-blindness, but only when it comes to white people. When people of color fight for the right to be judged on something other than the color of their skin, it's "radical."
-- A. Serwer
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