The Common Good

The Professor and the Police Officer Got Trapped in the 'Script'

I have been away for the last couple of weeks, first for a family wedding and reunion on a lake in northern Michigan, and then at the Chautauqua conference center in rural New York state. Neither place had great media access (always part of a good vacation) but I kept up the best I could. All of a sudden, I saw the familiar face of Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates on all the cable news shows on restaurant televisions without the sound on--someone I know from my own teaching at Harvard where Gates is a distinguished professor. Then I heard the story unfold and repeat about a million times, as sensational cable news stories always do, especially when they are about race.

When I returned to D.C. this weekend, the story was everywhere. Even the president had weighed in, then clarified his statements, then tried to play his role as national racial reconciler (with a beer at the White House with the principle protagonists scheduled for this Thursday).

I have a good friend who is a D.C. cab driver, and I climbed into his cab the day after I returned. He is always a good analyst of Washington politics, so we plunged into the discussion right away. "I have been in his shoes," said the 60-year-old African-American native of D.C. He confirmed that many other African Americans had been swapping their own stories of being stopped on the street, pulled over in their cars, confronted in stores, just followed around, or worse by the police. I remember listening to the African-American mother of a friend of mine growing up in Detroit, who told her children to hide from the police if they ever were lost while my mother told us kids to look for a policeman if we were far away from home. That is the context of this story for every black American, especially of Gates' generation. Gates being arrested on his front porch after a report of breaking into his own home seems both incredulous and, at the same time, not surprising to most black people in America.

And that is the 'script' of this new racial drama being played out in America about the Professor and the Police Officer. What most strikes me about the story is how neither participant was able to get out of the 'script' of the sad story of the relationship between black people and white police in America.

Of course, as the facts of the story have unfolded, it gets complicated. Most participants in the now national race drama agree that the woman who called the police when she saw two men who looked like they were breaking into a house--as Gates and his cab driver were trying to get into his house through a broken front door after an overseas trip--was being a reasonable citizen (though many, including me, still wonder if the call would have been made if the two men had been white in Gates' white neighborhood). And most agree that Officer Crowley is not the typical racist white cop, but rather one with an exemplary record, and is even a police trainer on matters of racial sensitivity and profiling. And most seem to agree that the combination of outrage, ego, and jet lag likely provoked the wrath of Skip Gates on a white cop answering a suspected burglary call and treating him like a suspect at his own home. From what we can piece together from the conflicting accounts of the angry words that ensued between the two men, it is clear to me that both got immediately caught up in the 'script,' and neither was able to extricate himself from it.

Gates' reported behavior felt offensive and abusive to the police officer, but an immediate acceptance of Gates' identity and residence followed by a quick and effusive apology by Crowley might have calmed the storm. And in any event, disrespectful behavior to a police officer is not against the law, and an arrest for disorderly conduct of a small 58-year-old man with a cane, on his own porch, when there was no threat to public safety involved, does appear to justify the accuracy, if not the political wisdom, of President Obama's suggestion that handcuffing Gates was acting "stupidly."

Police officers should get a great deal of sympathy, understanding, and support for often very tough split-second decisions where the lives of citizens, or their own lives, are at stake; but this was clearly not one of those situations. And Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson insightfully treated the charge of Gates' alleged "You have no idea who you're messing with" elitism when he observed that "meeting a famous Harvard professor who happens to be arrogant is like meeting a famous basketball player who happens to be tall."

The real issue here is two men who didn't believe the other showed him the proper deference. Thus, again we have fundamental issues of power at stake-this time between an upper-class black Harvard professor and working-class white Boston cop. And guess what? The 'script' took over. The Reconciler-in-Chief will likely get them both to behave better at the White House and get, if not apologies, at least a chilling out for the good of the nation. But if this incident is to become a teachable moment, there are at least two lessons to be learned.

The first is that racial profiling, whether or not it was involved in this particular case, is still real and indeed brutal in key sectors of our society-in particular, the criminal justice system. Clear and pervasive racial discrimination still exists in law enforcement, judicial practices, and penal policies at the bottom of American life even if things are much more complicated and nuanced at the top in places like Cambridge. One of the best articles in this controversy, which draws attention to the real and structural racial injustice still present in American society, was Glen Loury's op-ed in Sunday's New York Times.

"Certainly, the contretemps shed no relevant light on the plight of the millions of black men on society's margins who bear the brunt of police scrutiny and government-sanctioned coercion," wrote Loury. "Nevertheless, this is a principal source of the tension in interactions between the police and black men like me."

But the second lesson is about the 'script' itself and how to get out of it. The best way to defuse, diminish, and ultimately dismantle the power of the 'script' is to show even excessive respect in potential situations of conflict. Let's call it "affirmative respect" as a parallel to affirmative action. Nothing defuses a potential conflict like proactively showing such respect in just these kinds of situations; and Crowley should be teaching that in his racial diversity classes. Of course, respect should go both ways, but it must be said that the burden of respect will and should be on white people. Sorry folks, but that is just the burden of our racial history. And you don't have to be guilty of that history in order to be responsible for it. Most white people in America have benefited from racial discrimination even if they are not personally guilty of it, and are therefore obliged to now show that extra measure of respect. A new generation of black and white people with both less baggage and less of a chip on their shoulders will certainly help us all. But doing our part to diminish the power of the 'script' is all of our responsibility. Two men in Cambridge didn't do a good job of that last week, which could teach us all to do a little better.

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