Friday, July 24, 2009

The Arrest of a Black Harvard Professor

There has been another unfortunate incident that has racial overtones, which is the arrest of an African-American professor in Cambridge, Mass. As I understand it, this is what happened:

The professor returned home from an overseas trip, taking a limo from the airport to his house. He tried to open his front door, but it was jammed. He and his chauffer, also black, went around back and opened the back door. A neighbor saw two men (who happened to be African-American) fooling around with the door, and assumed a break-in was taking place. This neighbor called the police, who then dispatched officers to the house.

Here’s how an article on described what happened next:

Police said he [Professor Gates] flew into a verbal rage after [police officer] Crowley asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police say Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down and was arrested. The charge was dropped Tuesday, but Gates has demanded an apology, calling his arrest a case of racial profiling.

Gates, 58, maintains he turned over identification when asked to do so by the police. He said Crowley arrested him after the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.

First, the way it appears to me, the police officer was correct in verifying that the professor did, in fact, reside in that house. From what I’ve heard, that is standard operating procedure, and the professor shouldn’t have taken offense. Wouldn’t he have wanted the police to verify someone else if it hadn’t been him in that house?

Second, it appears that the professor grossly overreacted in this situation. The police weren’t driving by and stopping him at random. A call was made saying a crime was in progress, and the police were doing their job. They were actually protecting him and his property.

Third, I believe officer Crowley acted properly because he teaches a course on racial profiling at a police academy. He, if anybody, knows how to work with minorities. Moreover, I suspect (but can’t verify) that once he saw the 58 year old distinguished-looking professor and examined his identification, he was satisfied and was on his way out the door. It appears that the professor followed the officer out the door, screaming at him and demanding his badge number. He wouldn’t calm down, so Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct. While the professor overreacted, Crowley should have just gone back to his cruiser and left.

Having said that the professor overreacted, I know where he was coming from (although I still believe he shouldn’t have become as agitated as he did). I’ve discovered that many African-Americans have a chip on their shoulder after years of mistreatment. Although I believe the police acted properly in this case, the perception of the professor was that he was being mistreated because that’s what hundreds of years of history says happens. That’s a very hard point of view to get rid of, and just when you think things are getting better, another incident occurs either to you personally or to another African-American. Then you’re back to square one.

I suggest that white people be sensitive to where African-Americans are coming from. Even with a black president and significant progress over the last 40 years, many blacks still have this feeling of being discriminated against. The sad fact is that they are still objects of bias, often subtle, mostly unnoticed by whites, but nevertheless there. We whites should watch that our own subtle biases don’t surface.

Having said that, I still believe some African-Americans play the “race card” in cases where in fact, it isn’t appropriate. They should be careful and not yell “bias!” and “racial profiling!” at every incident. Save your ammunition for the big ones.

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