The prof and the police

Police | Gates episode shows collective rush to judgment

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

One thing the lingering fracas over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. showed-again-is that the flashpoint in America's long slog with racism often takes place at the intersection of law enforcement and minorities.

Short of video evidence it's hard to measure the tenor of what happened July 16 at the residence of the Harvard faculty member: Police hastened back to the house to arrest a black man for disorderly conduct. Gates hastened to declare the incident racial profiling-yelling "This is what happens to black men in America!"-despite the presence of African-American and Hispanic officers on the scene. And the media pounced on President Obama's comment that police acted "stupidly," though it came in the midst of a nuanced answer to a question about the incident in which Obama acknowledged tremendous progress toward racial equality.

In America the flip side of living for instant gratification is dying by instant condemnation. Few of us read the fine print. Gates continued to condemn his arresting officer, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, not knowing he actually taught a class on racial profiling for five years. Crowley decided Gates was acting disorderly and reached for his handcuffs, though he knew no serious crime had been committed and that Gates, 58, was the lawful resident of the home he was suspected of breaking into. Obama understandably felt led to defend black men in America, but without reading the police report.

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Even liberal media outlets agreed the incident was a win for conservatives in the culture wars. But no one should deny the wound of racial profiling as African-Americans who condemned Gates' behavior nonetheless testified to similar if not more demeaning experiences: former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Reagan National Airport, WORLD's own Anthony Bradley on a Missouri roadway (see "White cops, black suspicion"), among others. This was no Rodney King episode involving late-night police brutality against an ex-con. This episode involved men of standing in their respective communities, who in the light of the midday sun should have known better how to act.


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