Friday, July 24, 2009
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It's all over the Internet: Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley after trying to pry open the lock, which was already damaged, to his own Cambridge home with the help of his driver, who picked him up from a trip to China. President Obama, in a press conference on his health care initiative, chimes in by saying "the Cambridge Police acted stupidly."
President Obama's totally right. Here's why.
Professor Gates problem was that he was being "an uppity black man" against an officer who looked for "uncommon" versus "common" elements to connect with Gates - no connection, or "uncommon leads to an arrest. On the plane from Chicago to Atlanta yesterday, I was in first class on United Airlines (the luck I enjoy as the son of a former employee). There was a gentleman, white, in his 60s, who looked at the open seat next to me, and me, and kind of frowned. I didn't care. He sat in front of me.
As the drinks he had flowed he started talking loudly about President Bush and Republicans and how Nixon was right, and all that jazz which I though was funny, frankly. But - and I have this on camera - I could not help but notice how he was TRYING to connect with the man next to him, who was white, and older.
By contrast, he never tried to connect with me.
Had the man next to him been black, that would not have happened, and that's the problem. Racism in part is the assumption that you are not like me from the start just because of your skin color. If Officer Crowley had tried to calm Gates down, walked around the house and noticed photos on the walls, etc, he would have quickly picked up that it was Gates home. But because he wasn't looking for common elements or to try and calm Gates - he wanted to have power over him. He was offended that the Professor did not defer to him, and thought "He's not going to dance, so I'll teach him a lesson." So when Gates wasn't calming down and obeying orders, Crowley arrested him.
And that's the rub.
Police officers in the old days knew their neighbors and were more peace officers than military actors. Moreover, there's a common habit, 1) militaristic behavior and 2) of trying to put down someone black who's smart and assertive or just has the appearance of decency. This doesn't happen all the time, but I've been a victim of it, too. In 2006 a California Highway Patrol officer body-slammed me on his car just because I shed a tear after realizing I was going to be arrested after passing a field sobriety test and after going to the officer because a person was tailgating me so close I thought I was being followed (and I didn't say anything to contest the officer, but someone told me "I sound smart"). I'm serious.
On the other hand I personally know a lot of officers - many in the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and yes on the California Highway Patrol - who have far more self-control and intellect of action and also said the officer who body-slammed me was "out of control". But the bottom line is police officers nationwide - mostly white, a few "of color" - are almost hard-wired to think of a black man as bad "just because", and regardless of the look or background of the person, and that's got to change.
A good friend of mine in law enforcement said the problem is "a lot of these officers they bring in who are white or not black at times, don't have experience with blacks. They may have grown up in the suburbs and then only when they become an officer do they have contact with blacks." And then it's too late.
The lack of exposure to people of color, especially those who's "made it" and don't fit age old stereotypes, is hard to shake and explains why President Obama's so important to our future. Seeing a black person in the role is what America needs to advance. America must move beyond the shackles of racism if the nation is to come together as one people and solve our economic problems - the real big issue before us.
Officer Crowley, if he's an expert in racial profiling and how not to use it, should have known that he should not have treated a distinguished Harvard professor like that, especially someone who's black and walking with a cane! Indeed, he should have known who Professor Gates was right off the bat.
That he didn't is alarming.