One black Harvard professor. One white police officer. Equals Two perspectives. That sums up the controversy over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, the retired African American historian and Harvard University professor.
Breathing While Black
Gates was arrested by Cambridge police officer James Crowley, who is white and charged with disorderly conduct after a neighbor reported the suspicious behavior of two black men with backpacks on the front porch or her neighbor's home. One of the suspicious men ended up being Gates, who was returning from a trip to China. The other his driver. It was unclear why Gates could not get enter his front door and needed to get into his house from the back. That movement prompted the neighbor, who obviously did not recognize Gates or know him to call the police. When Sergeant Crowley arrived and confronted Professor Gates, an argument ensued. Crowley asked and was given State state ID and Harvard University ID. The argument escalated inside of Gates' home and later, on his front porch, Gates was arrested and hauled off to jail.
In the coming days the case was front page national news, with President Barack Obama weighing in with comments including "stupidity" on how the Cambridge Police Department handled the case. As verbal shots were fired on both sides and realizing the mistake that had been made, the police department promptly dropped all charges against Professor Gates.
America's Junky Back Room
But dialing back the rhetorical would not stop the outrage and the cries of racism that were just beginning. You see, America's race problem is like a house that's spot cleaned when company comes. You sweep all of the junk and clutter in the back room, the basement, or the attic with every intention of coming back later to sort and purge, but you never get back to it. It's waiting for you and looms large, especially when you need to use that back room. You open the door and realize that it's filled with the stuff from the last house guest's visit and you just do not know where to start.
Well America, it's time to start cleaning the junk room. We know there is a problem. And the two dominant opinions are too often at war with each other.
1 + 1 = 2
One black. One white. Two perspectives.
Professor Henry Louis Gates, the esteemed Harvard professor and PBS documentarian handcuffed and booked after providing that he indeed owned the house in question. Yes, his choice of words were probably ill timed, and his anger probably got the best of him.
Officer Crowley probably started off the investigation correctly, but sometimes while entering Gate's home and verbally challenging him he got angry and decided to show Gates who was in the power seat.
Was This A Case of Racial Profiling?
Some have said that this never was a racial episode. I completely disagree. Race became a matter of record as soon as the neighbor called the police about two suspicious looking black men lurking around another neighbor's front door. I would love to conduct a nationwide survey of the number of calls made to American police dispatchers and how often descriptions of black and Latino men are included in the calls, versus the absence of race when the caller is referring white men. I bet the results would be startinglingly different.
Blacks, Latinos And The Judicial System
Despite the triumphant election of President Barack Obama, race still matters in the United States of America. Blacks have long been suspicious of the police, no matter how professional a law enforcement agency can behave. According to the US Department of Justice, black men are six times more likely to become incarcerated than whites. Blacks are five times more likely to have a lifetime chance of going to prison. And now we can add the esteemed Professor Gates to that list of black men who come in direct contact with law enforcement.
It's a well known fact in the black community that parents arm their black sons with the language of survival when confronting the police. The consequences of doing otherwise could land them in jail. My own son-in-law who has never been arrested and is one of the most law-abiding young men I know has been harassed by the police more than once. Being dark-skinned and six foot three inches tall only adds to his stereotype of being the black criminal-type, and serves as a constant challenge as he navigates his way through life.
Many whites are simply puzzled by the outcries of racial injustice by the black community. They do not understand why race becomes the trigger point when incidences like this one arise. As an African American diversity professional who has studied race for 22 years, I emphasize with whites who resent when race enters in the middle of a confrontation, like this one of Professor Gates' arrest. There are indeed countless situations we face in our neighborhoods, our community groups and on our jobs that have nothing to do with race.
However, the problem the country faces is still directed toward that back room in our society. The room filled with the pain and suffering our country has never really faced when it comes to racial inequalities in America. And until we open the door, confront our past and begin the open dialogue between ethnic groups about race, our country will always lag behind its true potential of multicultural magnificence of the highest order.
Teachable Moments And WEB DuBois
President Obama has called this incident between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley a "teachable moment." Both men have been invited to the White House to discuss race and law enforcement issues with the President over a couple of beers. May this serve as just another reminder that our quest for a "post racial" America can not happen until we open our junk room doors, tackle the worst piles of junk first, and figure out how we can really come to terms with our past , our tragedies and our triumphs around race.
In his 1903 critically-acclaimed book, The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. WEB DuBois, another Harvard-trained black civil rights advocated said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. Now 106 years later, that race problem is still strangling our junked back room. We need to open the door, take a deep breath, and start cleaning. It's the only way that our nation can heal, move on, and make the "teachable moments" the lessons for our future.