Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. had friends in every corner when he first reported being a victim of racism after police suspected him of committing a crime in his own home. His arrest made a lot of people angry, and he rightly persuaded law enforcement officials the charges against him should be dismissed.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. had friends in every corner when he first reported being a victim of racism after police officers suspected him of committing a crime in his own home. His arrest made a lot of people angry, and he rightly persuaded law enforcement officials the charges against him should be dismissed.
Then he kept it up – insisting that it wasn’t over, demanding an apology, claiming to have suffered “emotional distress,” threatening a lawsuit, etc. And just like that, sympathy for Gates went poof. Acting more like a demented Energizer Bunny than an esteemed academic, Gates zoomed right off the PR gangplank – taking his important cause down with him.
Had he not been the world’s leading expert in all things racism, it might not matter so much that he lost his way. But his role as an anti-racism activist should have been more important to him than his ego. He didn’t have to gather the community around a tree for a peace picnic, but he could have been more thoughtful about how his reaction might affect the larger cause.
By drawing lines in the sand, Gates erected exactly the type of us-vs.-them barrier that fosters and legitimizes the very hatred he claims to oppose. He should have taken a deep breath and, whether he believed it or not, acknowledged that two things can both be true: He felt discriminated against – but there was no discrimination going on.
As a super smart guy, Gates can understand that when a person reports seeing two men breaking into a home, police have not only the authority but the duty to be suspicious of those men, no matter their color. That doesn’t mean Gates’ reaction was illegitimate. He knows all too well what it means to be the focus of unfair police suspicion based on race.
So it may well be that Gates responded as any reasonable black man would, but it’s also apparent that Sgt. James Crowley responded as any reasonable officer would. If police had anticipated Gates’ sensitivity, they wouldn’t have reacted so defensively, and they wouldn’t have arrested him. And if Gates had the capacity to believe the police may have simply been doing their job, he might not have overheated.
So maybe there’s a lesson for both sides, but the likelihood of a positive end game is fading fast alongside Gates’ bull-headed rantings about lawsuits and apologies.
Here’s another idea for the men in black, men in white, and men in blue:
Get together for coffee. Shake hands. Have a conversation about what happened and construct a lecture that you can present as a team about the way things unfolded. See if you can find common ground or at least an understanding about what each other was thinking at the time.
Wendy Murphy is a leading victims’ rights advocate and nationally recognized television legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston and radio talk show host. After writing this piece, she was engaged to represent the neighbor who called police.