Washington Matters


Gatesgate: A Race Debate With High Stakes


I'll start with a confession. When President Obama was asked Wednesday night about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, I assumed he'd duck, saying he didn't know the facts. He did acknowledge that much, but then went on to talk in tough tones, criticizing the police in Cambridge, Mass., for acting "stupidly." I knew he'd stepped into a big controversy and I thought it was a dumb move. But now I'm beginning to think it did some good --  prompting what could be a healthy debate.

The debate will only be healthy, though, if the participants approach it rationally and calmly, something that appears NOT to have happened when Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. As everyone knows at this point, a veteran police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, was sent earlier this month to investigate a report of a possible break-in at Gates's house. It turned out there was no burglary -- it was just Gates trying to get into his own house. But tempers flared, words were exchanged, and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped the next day.

I won't attempt to go into more detail because I wasn't there and I have no idea whether the arrest was justified. But I think the behavior of the two men involved -- Gates and Crowley -- was influenced both by a history that is hard to shake and conditions that are difficult for both police and minorities. That is understandable on both sides.

Just for a moment, let's try to put ourselves in their shoes. If you're a civilian, imagine what it's like to be a police officer investigating a report of trouble. It may be totally erroneous or you may be about to confront a desperate armed killer. When Crowley arrived on the scene, he didn't know what to expect, but cops in general know that their routine -- which may involve hours of boredom -- can suddenly turn into a life-and-death threat without warning.

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Those of us who are white can't begin to imagine what it's like for a black person to be confronted by the police. Blacks and Hispanics are regularly suspected just because of the color of their skin. Do we react the same when approached on the street by a stranger regardless of that person's color? Or is there a little more hesitation when the stranger is black?

Is there any doubt that racial profiling exists? One colleague in my office tells of a black friend who is afraid to drive in certain parts of the Washington metropolitan area just because he knows that a routine traffic stop would leave him powerless and at the mercy of police officers who may assume the worst about him because he's black.

Given this background, I can't help but wonder if both Gates and Crowley were right in how they reacted and behaved -- right, at least in the sense, that one can easily sympathize with the pressures they were under. Obviously, Obama felt some sympathy for Gates -- sympathy based on his own life story. That's what led him to break his usual rule of staying out of racial disputes.

There doesn't have to be a victor and a victim in the Cambridge story. In real ways, they both are victims of what we as a society have wrought. But they could both turn out to be victors if their experience -- and Obama's comments -- fosters a debate that makes everyone think a little harder about a complicated problem that won't be easy to fix.




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