Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Close This FloodGate(s)

By now many of you are familiar with the incident involving the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arguably the most prominent and respected scholar in the country. He is also black. Most of the facts in the case are not really in dispute. If you read both the police report and the account Gates gave to the Washington Post, both stories are strikingly similar. In other words, both sides are being honest...and yet both sides are seeing the incident with a sort of Rashomon twist. This is telling, I think. Yes, the police report gives more details and paints a less cooperative picture than the one Gates offers, but reading between the lines and combining the two accounts I think it's fairly easy to get a decent idea of what took place.

Gates arrived home to his Cambridge house following a trip to China, whereupon he struggled to enter the premises because his front door was jammed (evidently from a previous break-in attempt, Gates told the officers). With the aid of his driver, a "large Moroccan" as Gates described to the Washington Post, the two attempted to pry the door open for about fifteen minutes before finally succeeding in breaking the door---an act which caught the attention of a neighbor who promptly called the police to report a possible break-in. The police arrived and asked Gates to verify his identity, something he eventually did, but it's clear from both party's accounts that Gates was taken aback and resistant. There seems little doubt that Gates was belligerent to some degree. Whether it was a little or a lot is anyone's guess. Gates was arrested shortly after he left his house and continued his "tumultuous" behavior outside.

What is mainly at issue is Gates's charge that this incident was racially motivated. He has demanded an apology and has said he will now focus his future research on the issue of racial profiling. This story has naturally exposed the ever-present divide that white America and black America experience when it comes to dealing with the police. Most of white America, it would seem, read the accounts of this incident and concluded that Gates overreacted. Anecdotally speaking, I heard one person say, "He should be thankful the police arrived so quickly." I think this attitude is likely a pervasive one among whites. On the other side of the spectrum are the usual characters of racism-claiming civic leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, ever at the ready to point out racist acts as they see it. This, of course, only serves to make that Rashomon divide ever wider. Sharpton and Jackson cry racism so often that when genuine racism has occurred nobody who should listen listens.

I wish this story would die. Now. Racial profiling exists. Racist cops exists. It's an important issue. But my Rashomon point-of-view tells me that both parties here are simultaneously right and wrong. There's simply NO evidence that this is racially motivated. None. Even so, that doesn't mean Skip Gates is crazy. His feelings of persecution are valid in the greater context of what we know has routinely taken place in Boston, Dallas, New York and every city and every town in America at various points in time. Black resentment and skepticism toward the police is understandable. But was this such a deserving case? It seems unlikely. Does that mean the cop acted responsibly? No. If you assume for a moment that this white cop is an upstanding citizen with no bias against blacks, it's understandable that he would be upset by a black man accusing him of being a racist for simply doing his job. If Gates was verbally abusive, as I believe he probably was, it's understandable that the officer would have lost his cool and arrested him. Understandable, but not excusable. Police officers are trained to diffuse situations...not exacerbate them. He's probably not a "bad" officer, but he is a human who exercised bad judgment. This incident should be used as a training tool for all officers. Has no one ever watched COPS before? How many times have you seen belligerent white trash verbally abuse officers and then get arrested after failing to heed their warnings? That's like every episode. It's not always a black/white issue. It's a cops-love-power issue at least as often.

And that's really what the legacy of this incident should be. It shouldn't be about race, it should be about how officers need to know when to walk away. I don't believe Gates was arrested because he was black. I believe he was arrested because a police officer failed to execute his responsibilities to the best of his abilities. Gates aided that failure, but the onus is on the officer, not Gates...and that, no doubt, is why the charges have been dropped. Gates has a brilliant mind so it's disappointing that in the days following this arrest he's not gained any greater perspective on the matter. The post-racial era of Obama is suffering a setback when claims of racism are levied without merit. I believe white America is largely understanding of black America's skepticism toward the police, but this incident widens the divide unnecessarily. Please. Please let this "story" go away.


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