There is still an intolerable amount of racism in America. There are too many people in the U.S. who are bigoted and downright dismissive of those who don’t look like they do.
That said, let’s all admit something. Some of us see racism behind every act – and that in itself becomes a sort of racism too.
The catalyst for writing this week’s column is, of course, the recent disorderly conduct arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts following a concerned citizen’s report that two men appeared to be trying to break into a home.
There’s no need to rehash all the over-analyzed facts of this case but … suffice it to say Professor Gates interpreted the actions of one of the responding officers, Sergeant James Crowley, as
racially motivated. Crowley and the other officers (including patrolmen who are both Hispanic and African American) say it was Gates who stepped out of line by being belligerent in his responses as they tried to investigate. After showing his identification to prove he was in his own home Professor Gates balked at the request to step outside. He’s said to have loudly proclaimed that no white man would be put through such a humiliation. He declared he was a victim of racial profiling.
Professor Gates, a top scholar on race relations in America, obviously didn’t stop to wonder why the police would ask him to step outdoors.
The original 911 report had two men attempting to break into the house and police procedure trains officers to immediately account for everyone involved. They needed to know if there was danger lurking inside and their first instinct was to clear the house and check. Sadly, Professor Gates jumped to the conclusion that it was the color of his skin motivating the officers and not his safety.
Here’s what no one has said in all the breathless reporting on this story: When the police tell you to do something they are under no obligation to tell you why they’re asking. When the police make a request you best comply otherwise things could go badly for you.
It’s the advice parents have long given their children as they go out into the world. Do what the police say. If you’ve got a complaint register it later.
This is not a blast at Gates. It’s a reminder of how things work. Police are there to help us and respond to our emergency needs. It defeats our own best interests to automatically treat them as racist.
This is also a pat on the back for all those members of law enforcement who walk into potentially dangerous situations every single day, in every single city in America. It’s a tip of the hat to those who keep the peace and allow the rest of us live in a (relatively) lawful society. Are there some bad apples within law enforcement? Of course and I’ve written about rogue cops in past columns.
It makes me sad that a man as educated as Professor Gates, an accomplished author and one who was voted among the nation’s “Most Influential Americans”, would immediately think of himself as a victim and perceive the police as adversaries. Just as disturbing was the knee-jerk comment from our equally well educated President Obama that the officers acted “stupidly” before he knew the facts.
Among the facts: Sergeant Crowley is a well respected and respectful officer, the brother of three other cops. And far from being a racist Crowley is the man who 16 years ago, as a Brandeis University police officer, got down on a gymnasium floor and tried to breathe life back into Celtics superstar Reggie Lewis after he’d collapsed during practice. Crowley’s mother says it still “bothers him terribly” that he couldn’t save the African American athlete’s life.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in another color skin and the immense indignation I would feel if I was unfairly treated because of it. But the truth is we’ve made tremendous strides in this country toward a more just society. Is everything completely equal? No, but compared to a hundred years ago we’re almost downright harmonious!
Maybe we’ve been talking about the wrong thing here. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The 58 year old Gates surely remembers past painful discrimination. But he cannot be blind to the fact that bigotry and intolerance is practiced by all sorts of folks – Whites, Hispanics, Asians and yes, even, African Americans.
It’s a positive thing that we’re talking about this now. As we do let’s remember some of the people who look different from us wear badges. They should automatically get the benefit of the doubt. When we chip away at authority figures – police in particular – we chip away at our own well-being and safety.