Gates, Crowley and Historical Baggage24 July, 2009
I have resisted chiming in on the case of Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley. Both PhillyChief and Chappie have their take on the unfortunate event. I tried to comment, but quickly went from comment to essay. Still, I resisted writing about it. Until now. Because now I think that I have something to say which, to my knowledge, has not yet been said. Before I get into that, though, I need to explain, quickly, the surface causals in the incident:
First: Professor Gates is one of the great minds in modern America. He is a success story which shows what is possible: from a small West Virginia town to Yale, Clare College Cambridge, Cornell, Duke and, finally, Harvard. He also appears to have over reacted, possibly (and I am not trying to make an excuse for his behaviour, but I am trying to show how this could have happened) because he was tired after spending a long time in an airplane.
Second: Sergeant Crowley is widely described as an honourable and professional police officer. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood and friends and co-workers gently laugh at the idea that he is racist. He also appears to have overreacted to the actual situation, possibly (and I am not trying to make an excuse for his behaviour, but I am trying to show how the could have happened) because he was entering a reported breaking and entering, finding an open door with one person visible inside. His adrenaline was elevated as he mentally and physically prepared for what he thought was a possible life-and-death situation.
Third: Both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley appear to have played an unintentional ‘game’ of uproar. Uproar happens, unintentionally, when two (or more) people escalate a situation well past the level it deserves, usually through stress, anger, or a host of unresolved issues between the two, conscious or unconscious. Either one, or both, could have de-stressed the situation. Between Gates’ exhaustion and Crowley’s fight or flight adrenaline level, I am not surprised that two intelligent and professional men allowed this to happen and appear to have played into the increasing confrontation. I do not see this as a hate crime. I do not see either man as a racist.
That said, I think that both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley are, at a secondary level, victims of racism. Here’s why:
Minorities in America have, historically, had a very good reason to distrust police officers.
Up until very recently, police officers were not civil servants. Oh, they met the definition of a civil servant in that they were paid by a government agency to perform a function as a representative of the government. However, police officers protected property and the propertied.
Police were used to break up union meetings and rallies to ‘preserve the peace.’ They routinely arrested the poor and minorities on charges which would never have been brought against middle- or upper-class whites. If the prison did not have enough men for the chain gangs, the police rounded up ‘vagrants’ to fill them out. The southern law enforcement response to the civil rights movement was violent and, in some cases, deadly as the local and state police tried to protect the status quo. Even the National Park Service was not immune to the misuse of law enforcement, using maintenance workers equipped with axe handles to clear a camp ground in Yosemite of ‘hippies’. Even in very recent history, relations between law enforcement officers and the minority community have been strained — Rodney King, in Los Angeles comes to mind, as does Tenaha, Texas.
Professor Gates carries with him the baggage of generations of abuse by authority figures. Tired from a long flight, he viewed the necessary actions of a police officer — making sure that there was no one else in the house, checking identification, clearing the scene — through the lens of racism and reacted in an unprofessional manner.
Sergeant Crowley, however, carries his own baggage based on historical racism.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, blatant racism on the part of government officers has become less and less acceptable. Today, an accusation of racism made against an officer of the law can create massive legal bills, can damage careers and, in some cases, put the officer’s job and pension on the line. Officers in almost all police departments are taught to be sensitive to any possibility of racism.
Yet they are also taught to profile. A white man cruising in a nice car through a run down neighborhood should raise questions — drugs or prostitution? A black man appearing to jimmy a door in a wealthy neighborhood (apparently the door was jammed) should raise questions.
Responding to a breaking and entering complaint, Sergeant Crowley entered a house expecting the unexpected. He, and his partner, did not know, could not know, what to expect. When they encountered Professor Gates, and met with his angry accusations or insinuations of racism, that threat changed from one of a possible physical confrontation to one in which Sergeant Crowley’s career was being threatened. The threat changes but his response to a threat, through years of training and experience, does not.
I have no idea what went through the mind of either man during the incident. I will never know. All I can do is point out that every single one of us carries with us historical baggage. This historical baggage colours our reactions in myriad situations. I strongly suspect that, due to extenuating circumstances, both men allowed their historical baggage to escalate a tense situation into a full-blown confrontation.