The internet is abuzz with the news that a prominent African American professor (from Harvard, no less), Henry Louis Gates, was arrested over the weekend. Apparently, he had returned home from an overseas trip, and was faced with a jammed front door. As he was trying to let himself in, cops came by, asked for identification, did not get any cooperation from Professor Gates, and promptly arrested him. Now, the world is heaping scoops upon scoops of criticism on the police officers, police department, and the neighbor who called the cops, all of us screaming, “Oh my God, racial profiling!”
At first, I was flabbergasted and thought it was a horrible case of racial profiling gone hideously right…right because it’s nice when law enforcement gets caught doing something stupid to someone prominent. There is more accountability, and you know that when they apologize, they really mean it; who wouldn’t be sorry for having wronged a prominent individual?
Then, I got to the end of the first article, and every article I’ve read since, and I can’t help being on the cops’ side. They received a call from the man’s neighbor, who said she saw “two black men with backpacks” trying to enter her neighbors house. I’m sure she knew her neighbor was a black man, and wasn’t attempting to be stupidly racist. My neighbors are Vietnamese; if I see a couple of Vietnamese folks that seem like they are struggling with the door, and they’re not my neighbors, should I assume they are, and just let it go? And then find out the next day that my neighbors had been robbed? Or, should I call the cops and report suspicious activity, as I would want my neighbors to do if they saw, say, Muslim-looking dudes trying to get into my house? I’m going with the latter option every single time. I call the cops over the slightest weird noise I hear coming from my neighbors…because the one time I didn’t, they were robbed. I’m going to err on the side of caution, and so far, nobody is complaining. That’s the neighbor; how about the cops? Did they do something horribly, tragically, stupidly racist?
Maybe they did, to an extent; or maybe they didn’t. The reports are apparently varied as to what happened, and when they arrested Professor Gates, and on what grounds. Some reports say he was arrested at his front door, before he ever got into his house; others say that when his front door was jammed, he went around to the back entrance, got in, and then there were these cops who knocked on his front door; when he opened it, they asked for identification. Here is where people get all up in arms, and I’m thinking, why are you getting ticked off? Clearly, there had been something wrong with his door (maybe because someone at some point had botched up a break-in?!), the cops came to check it out (because they were called, probably validly?!), and now they’re wanting to make sure they are not talking to a big bad robber guy. What’s the problem? If they had just asked, “Do you live here, sir?” He said, “Yes” and they went on their merry way, and it turned out that the dude at the door who happened to be black hadn’t been Mr. Gates, would that have reflected well on the cops’ job performance?
I get that Mr. Gates at this point began to get irate and ask for their badge numbers and names…but I don’t get why. So, they asked for your ID, you provided it (maybe immediately, maybe after a little bit of shock at being asked to provide ID in your own home), and now they’re leaving; what’s to get mad about? This is where my sympathy for Mr. Gates begins to ebb. I also don’t get why the cops didn’t just give him their badge numbers, although I reckon it would not have been all that difficult for Professor Gates to obtain their names: law enforcement officers wear name plates right on their uniforms. I get that this might have happened a ton of times without reason at all…but this really doesn’t sound like a situation without reason. To top it all, the cop who arrested Professor Gates for “disorderly conduct” seems to have pretty solid race-related credentials. If anything, this sounds like it was a power struggle between a “wronged” home owner and a cop, and a cop is going to win a power struggle every single time, even if the skin colors of the protagonist and antagonist had been reversed.
There’s a time for crying racism, and there’s a time for crying boo. Yes, there are cops who go way over the line, many many cops…but punishing the ones who just might have good reasons for their actions is the fastest way to weed out the good cops and leave behind nothing but bad apples. And to me, that is kind of what this situation is beginning to feel like.