When I was a teenager, I got a job in a department store as "Christmas help" and somehow wound up in security.
The bosses, a white guy in his forties named Mike, and a black guy in his thirties named Jim, sat me down to teach me a few tricks of the trade. “We’ll give you a radio and binoculars, and you’ll sit on the roof, and tell us when the black kids come in.” Wow, I thought, this is high-level stuff!
I failed miserably at this simple task, not because I was a great social activist, but was merely more interested in my social life. I used my perch to check out the girls coming in.
It was not long before I was tossed out of security and into the sweater department, but from time to time I would ask Jim about how he racially profiled
his own race.
“You’re 16,” Jim would say, “You don’t know – – – about – – -!” Fair analysis.
Some three decades later, Jim’s analysis might apply to what America has learned. It is the case of the Cop, the Prof and the Prez.
Incredibly, President Barrack Obama, the ultimate symbol of how far we have come, showed us how far we have to go. Who would believe that he would be the one to trigger a racial uproar and make the “stupid” comment heard round the nation, taking sides while admitting that he did not know all the facts.
The facts suggest that at the moment of confrontation, we have every reason to understand both sides’ point of view, and every reason not to!
Let us start with Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department. He responded to a report of a two men, MAYBE, breaking into a house.
When Sgt. Crowley confronted the “intruder,” Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he demanded identification and asked him to step outside. Standard procedure.
Professor Gates, on the other hand, had every right to feel free from harassment in his own home.
Fine so far. Now they both have some explaining to do.
Professor Gates felt he was being racially profiled, no doubt in part from a history of indignities that he’s been subjected to over the years. In this case? So far, the worst he could say about Sgt. Crowley was that he was gruff.
As for Sgt. Crowley, on the police tapes he indicates Gates told him he is a Harvard Professor, in his own home. The sergeant still calls for “more cars.” In addition, he arrests Gates for “disorderly conduct,” for being unruly. Gates may have only been obnoxious.
Does the 9-1-1 recording help either side? Yes. Moreover, no.
The caller was not sure of race, so the cops were not “looking for a black man.” No indication of early profiling.
But the 9-1-1 caller warned that she wasn’t sure if she was looking at intruders or homeowners. So why the gruff approach to Gates?
This incident may be less racial, and more generational.
Sgt. Crowley says when he asked Gates to step outside, the Professor
answered “I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
But Gates denies this. When asked by Maureen Dowd about it, the Professor sarcastically suggested Sgt. Crowley got the line from watching “Good Times” as
It is possible Crowley watched “Good Times” later on TV Land, but not with the rest of us in the 70s. The show went off the air in 1979, when he was two years old.
Professor Gates came of age in the sixties, in the era of Jim Crow and Selma.
Sgt. Crowley grew up in the nineties, in the world of Bill Clinton and Monica.
Professor Gates was taught to “fight the power,” Sgt. Crowley, to respect the badge.
Professor Gates is an elite Harvard professor, but who no doubt throughout his career has felt the oppression of being a successful black man in America.
And Sgt. Crowley no doubt has had to put up with rich, bratty, elitist Harvard kids (and professors) looking down their collective noses at a working class cop (the old “gown versus the town”).
Two men, from two eras, seeing two very different worlds.
Was this incident avoidable? Yes. Perhaps the Gladys Kravitz character next door who spotted this so-called “break-in” should stop being a busy-body, or at least get to know her neighbors!
The President will buy a round of beers to help smooth things over. I do not think he’ll lean over his desk and say to Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley, "Which one of you is lying about the ‘your mama’ line?” No, the President will use this as his “teachable moment.”
But much like that kid who sat dumbfounded on the roof of a department store
a few decades ago, now I’m sitting on the fence, seeing both sides, and not sure that I’ve learned anything new about race in America. Dbfox5news@aol.com