I have been watching the news coverage of Henry Louis Gates’ arrest (the Harvard professor who may or may not have been loud and belligerent with a cop trying to make sure that Gates’ house was not being robbed…again). I keep hearing about how the police officer may have racially profiled Gates as a black man, how the history of race relations between black men and white cops has been really bad, and how this may have been in Gates’ mind when this white cop entered his house and asked to see proof of his residence.
One thing I have not heard, though, is the possibility that Gates profiled the cop.
Is it possible that a sixtyish-year-old African-American historian, whose specialty is the history of African-Americans, profiled the white Cambridge police officer who appeared, unbidden, in his home, and asked him to prove that he lived there?
Of course it’s possible. It’s even understandable, because Gates studies that very subject like I study political behavior and policy. I know that it’s very difficult for me to separate politics from the rest of my life – everything I see, no matter what subject, I tend to filter first through my normal thought-patterns of political behavior. I read my Bible (I’m a Christian), and I see David’s flight from King Saul in modern political strategic terms as utterly brilliant. Later, Absalom did the same thing. But that, of course, isn’t the point of those passages – David was honoring God by not challenging the anointed King of Israel, even though he had every right and opportunity. It has nothing to do with politics.
So from an introspective point of view, I understand Gates’ reaction. But that doesn’t make it right.
I’ll give you a situation here, just think about this: A black man, a professor from a highly respected university, is coming home from a trip to China. His front door is difficult to unlock, because it was damaged in a recent break-in. Being unable to unlock it, he walks to the back door, and lets himself in.
Mere minutes later, a police officer appears, and informs me that he is investigating a report of a break-in. Being jet-lagged, irritated at the front door’s damaged state; and being an expert in the history of relations between people of color and the police, the black professor’s emotions get the better of him. He wonders aloud if this (a police call about a break-in) would happen to a white man. He grows more frustrated with the police officer’s insistence at seeing identification, eventually relenting, but still giving loud voice to his displeasure about being forced to identify himself in his own home. Upon seeing identification, and upon learning the facts about the mistaken call, the officer begins to leave. The professor follows the officer out of the house (because the officer asked him to do so), growing ever more bellicose in his manner – even accusing the officer of being a racist. The police officer, after attempting this whole time to calm the professor, finally is forced by circumstance to arrest the professor.
You have that picture in your head? Focus on it. See their faces, the defeated, yet defiant look on the professor’s face; the chagrin on the police officer’s face as he leads the professor down to the waiting squad car. Focus on the police officer, every twist of his expression as the professor accuses him of being a racist, a bigot, and of allowing prejudice to interfere with his professional conduct.
You see the policeman’s face?
Now imagine he’s black.
Does this blowhard professor go a-wire on the police officer if the officer in question is a black man?
I think not.