The incident involving Harvard University scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts police department has put on display the combustible conflict of race, class and generational divide. There are so many layers of conflict that it is difficult to assess which factor drove the confrontation and which ones were merely ancillary to the dust-up between the professor and Sergeant James Crowley. Though only the two men involved know what ultimately occurred, it is important to try to understand some of the larger issues at hand if anything productive is to come out of this. President Obama has expressed his desire to bring both men to the White House but that meeting will be little more than a symbolic photo op if larger institutional and systemic issues are not addressed by this administration.
Like it or not, the President now finds himself in the middle of a high profile racial incident. It is the sort of event that Mr. Obama attempted to avoid speaking to directly while he was on the campaign trail; choosing instead to frame “race” in the larger context of the American struggle. Now, the nation’s first Black President has been called out, so to speak, forced to interject himself in a situation due to his familiarity with one of the individuals involved and his own sense of outrage over what played out at the home of Professor Gates. Whether the President’s reaction exacerbated the situation is debatable. Critics charge that he spoke before he knew all the facts, something Mr. Obama himself implied when he later said that he should have been more careful with his choice of words when he claimed the police acted “stupidly.” On the other hand, the spotlight on the incident due to Professor Gates’ stature ensured that it would not just simply go away.
There are some very practical considerations this incident brings to fore that this nation must contend with that extend well beyond the exploration of what occurred between Gates and Crowley. The manner in which law enforcement, particularly local police, engage Black males has long been a flash point in social relations in this nation. It is the leftover baggage from slavery and Jim Crow, two periods in which Black men were the object of virulent hatred and physical abuse. During those dark periods white supremacy was built upon the emasculation of Black males and the determination of slave owners and segregationists to humiliate them to the point where they would be politically impotent, culturally maimed and devoid of any sense of self-determination. During Jim Crow, the chief offenders were often local police who made certain to humiliate Black men, knowing the effect it would have on families and the community at large. Addressing adult Black men as “boy” and treating them as children/subjects was designed to make them subservient and unable to fulfill the traditional male role. One of the most demeaning aspects of that environment for Black men was to be treated with disrespect by younger whites and unable to defend one’s self.
The manner in which law enforcement has repeatedly interacted with Black men in the post-civil rights era carries the vestiges of Jim Crow. It has been about power, who has it and who does not. What many people cannot understand in the situation involving Professor Gates is how could the interaction have eroded to the point of him being arrested? When viewed through the lens of common practices it is not so difficult to understand. President Obama said so during his initial reaction when the President said he understood why Gates was angry, and thinks anyone would be under the circumstances. Still, even with that perspective it is important to get to some of the larger issues that go to the heart of why incidents such as these frequently occur.
Without talking to him directly about his state of mind at the time, it is safe to assume that Professor Gates was incensed that someone of his pedigree would be subject to the treatment normally reserved for lesser-known individuals. The idea that he could be confronted at his own home and then questioned most likely offended the scholar to the point that all notions of civility were secondary in his thoughts. Herein is the first point of conflict. The younger, white male police officer who most likely showed no deference toward Professor Gates, someone who is accustomed to being acknowledged, and most likely acting indifferently when rebuffed in his inquiry as to who the professor is. Gates is demanding respect and the white officer is probably not obliging because in this instance, he is in charge, despite being on a resident’s property. Now both men are probably holding their ground, Gates because of racial memory and the officer out of a sense of entitlement, subconsciously empowered by the same memory that frames the professor’s perspective.
The second driver of conflict is probably age. Gates, elder to Sergeant Crowley, was likely insulted that he was no shown deference by the younger white police officer. It does hearken back to the period in our country when it was considered acceptable for younger whites to disrespect and belittle Black men. In Gates’ view, he may have viewed the officers’ questioning in that larger narrative, when Black men were simply expected to suffer silently while being stripped of their dignity. It would be hard enough for the “average” Black male to absorb such perceived ill treatment, let alone for a renowned historian who is well versed on our country’s past. Crowley, who may or may not be aware of our nation’s tortured racial history, was still likely invested in preserving his “authority” without consideration for the age of the man he encountered. In fact, that may have never entered the officer’s thinking because “Black male” is a description that often overrides any recognition that the subject’s age likely, though admittedly not necessarily, means the person is not a threat.
The third factor is class, and this is where, more and more, race is likely to be the accelerant that sparks the flames. Here we have an accomplished Black man, recognized throughout the world for his scholarship and resident at one of the nation’s most elite institutions of higher education. It is not difficult to envision Dr. Gates invoking the “Do you know who I am?” as the officer treated the professor as if he were invisible. It is the reality of many Black men who have attained some social status through their education or professional position, and still find themselves at the bottom of the social pecking order. They struggle every day with the lack of respect they are shown in society. In the case of Gates, there was the irony of the white, working class cop imposing his will on the learned intellectual. In becoming Professor Henry Louis Gates, a sense of entitlement must have been built up in his climb up the social ladder. The fact that a civil servant, someone who likely does not have the intellectual stamina of the professor, could gain the upper hand simply because of the status society confers to him regardless of how that plays out, had to have been insulting to Gates. The benefits accrued to those with celebrity and status rarely transfer completely to Black men; who are always a phone call or visit away from a negative incident with the police, or even store security for that matter.
As President Obama seeks to meet the two men at the heart of this controversy, he must also consider how to preserve his unique voice on race while confronting directly the aspects of an incident that threatens to outpace his ability to drive the conversation. The only way forward progress can be made in this matter is if all of the issues laid out above are discussed by the various parties, including police and their union(s), civil rights advocates and Black men. An honest dialogue on so-called police-community relations will likely only be had when class and the generation gap are also considered in the context of how law enforcement engages Black men.