Last weekend’s confrontation between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge police sergeant James M. Crowley has taken the sheen off the era of good racial feelings that accompanied President Obama’s election. Wise folks knew better than to trust it, but the ugly little incident in a sylvan section of Cambridge has opened old wounds.
Even President Obama jumped into the fray, saying that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates once he showed identification. The president may be right, but he too may have acted “stupidly.” Everyone following this story — including the president — needs to relax, take five, and wait for the final details to emerge.
Those who know me can attest that I’m usually among the first to mount a moral high horse. Do I believe that a lot of cops are hotheads? I sure do; even as a white man I’ve been the victim of idiots who think that a badge is a license to swagger like Dirty Harry.
But I’m also a professor. Do I believe that an academic of an exalted reputation such as that of Professor Gates is capable of being belligerent, arrogant, and disrespectful of someone deemed “beneath” them? Hell, yes! I see it all the time. And therein lies the problem. There are two stories circulating, both of which are plausible, and the only people who know what happened are Gates and Crowley and perhaps not even they recall it exactly as it went down.
One man (or both) either lied or allowed his passion to distort what occurred. And the kicker is that it would have been out of character for it to happen to either man. It would be convenient if Sgt. Crowley was a bad cop or a racist, but the record suggests he’s not. His record is exemplary, he’s popular with both white and black colleagues, and there’s not (yet) been any evidence of bias. In fact, he teaches other officers how to avoid racial profiling and was the officer who frantically tried to revive the black Boston Celtic star Reggie Lewis as he lay dying in a Brandeis gym 16 years ago.
As for Professor Gates, he’s simply one of the most respected names in all of academia and he has a reputation for being affable and easygoing. My own interaction with him consists of once shaking his hand. That’s far too brief for me to evaluate his character, but I deeply admire his intellect.
When faced with two equally believable stories the prudent course is to avoid a rush to judgment. In the best possible scenario there won’t be a villain or a scapegoat; both Crowley and Gates will break bread together, admit mutual misunderstanding, shake hands, and enlist as comrades in the ongoing battle to create a race-blind America.
In the end, the only unassailable truth in the Crowley/Gates dispute is that the era of good racial feelings was a feel-good myth.
Rob Weir teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.