August 13, 2009

Professor Gates and the Thin Blue Line

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

On July 16, Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested. The disorderly conduct charges filed that day were later dropped. Seems that Dr. Gates had just returned from a trip to China and could not get his front door opened, so he asked his driver to help him force the door in.

A neighbor saw the two men and called the police to report a possible burglary. Now that recordings have been released from the 911 call, we have learned that the caller was nudged into calling by another woman who saw the men and was concerned. We’ve also learned the 911 caller did not say that two black men were breaking into the home as early news stories and the police report indicated. In fact, the caller did not mention the race of the possible burglars; race was brought up by the person taking the call with the following question: “Are they white, black, or Hispanic?” (Notably, Asian was not offered as an option in a city where they comprise 12 percent of the population.) The caller responded to that question by saying, “One looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure.”

Cambridge police responded to the call and Sergeant James Crowley entered the residence where Prof. Gates showed him identification, proving that he was in his own home. These basic details don’t appear to be in dispute, but the stories diverge among the principals regarding the interaction between Sgt. Crowley and the professor. Prof. Gates claims that Sgt. Crowley refused his repeated requests for Crowley’s name and badge number while Sgt. Crowley alleges that Prof. Gates became increasingly belligerent, even talking about his Momma—and not in a good way! Eventually, Prof. Gates stepped outside of his home where he was placed in hand-cuffs. According to Sgt. Crowley, Prof. Gates was arrested because of his “tumultuous” behavior; the professor argues that his arrest was racially motivated.

In terms of race in America, much about the case is fascinating. The 58 year-old professor is a renowned scholar on African and African American studies and PBS documentarian. Sgt. Crowely, with more than a decade on the police force, has taught other police officers how to avoid racial profiling for five years. And of interest has been the response to the incident. Mostly, people have responded as expected: Blacks and liberals lined up in support of Prof. Gates and whites and conservatives supported Sgt. Crowley. Prof. Gates has spoken to major news outlets but also to African American ones (Gates started a website featuring commentary from “black perspectives”, The Root in 2008). Sgt. Crowley has talked with major news outlets (Boston Herald) but had his first interview with two white (apparently conservative) radio hosts. A discussion about the encounter on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” highlights some of the peculiarities of public discussions about race in the U.S. The discussants were Mika Brzezinski, Mike Barnicle, Harold Ford Jr., Carlos Watson, Willie Geist, and Andrea Mitchell. (Ford and Watson are identified as African American, while the others are White.)

Speaking of President Obama’s response to the story, Mitchell said to Mika Brzezinski:

He comes with his own history. He went to Harvard. He knows “Skip” Gates. He is an African American man. And I think that people approach this story based on their own life experiences. And that he has either had experiences or understands and empathizes with people – people of color …who have had the experience…and he can understand this in a way perhaps that either you or I can’t.

Watson argued that regardless of what Gates said, given his age and his use of a walking cane that the interaction should not have ended with Gates being handcuffed by a 42 year-old cop who had been on the police force for some time – even if Gates was “loud and tumultuous as the report said”. Ford agreed and contended that regardless of race, once it was established that Prof. Gates was the home owner, there should have been no arrest.

Barnicle addressed Watson saying, “There is no way I can walk in your shoes! There is no way I can carry the weight of history... And all the evidence is on your side, Harold’s side about getting pulled over, Driving While Black and all that.” Barnicle explained that based on his thirty years of experience it was clear that Sgt. Crowley was responding to a report of a burglary in process, and, not knowing how many people were in the house, he did not want to go into the house. That’s why, he said, there was conflict as Prof. Gates refused to step outside.

Note that the Mitchell and Barnicle both underscore their inability to understand racial profiling, and in fact Brzezinski did as well. In the part of the show I saw, I did not hear Ford or Watson say that they are unable to understand the point of view of whites or police, but it’s possible that they did. But what is empathy if not the ability to understand another person’s feelings? And what hope is there for moving race discussions beyond the expected we are only able to empathize with those who look like us?

How much of this encounter is related to self-fulfilling prophesies surrounding racism and the police? As discussed in a previous post, and despite their training to the contrary, is it possible that both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley were reacting to what they expected of each other?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Professor Gates and the Thin Blue Line:


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« New Media Revolution | Main | Stuff: Reduce? Reuse! Recycle. »