Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Institute for African and African-American Research, said he hoped his arrest for disorderly conduct on July 16 would be a teachable moment for America. Boy, has it ever been.
Monday, the City of Cambridge released the 911 and arrest tapes from the incident in which Gates was arrested by white police officer James Crowley. It is no wonder that Gates has begun to back down from his allegations of racism. The tapes show no such motivation, and they confirm that Gates was being disorderly, which he had denied.
The tapes reveal a couple of crucial points. 1) the woman who reported the possible break-in at Gates’ home never mentioned black males at all. 2) Gates was in fact shouting, despite his claim that this was impossible.
Gates’ allegations of being racially profiled by a lying, racist officer collapse upon the tapes’ revelations. Officer Crowley was not looking for black men. He had no idea what race the suspects were. And Gates was indeed being disorderly.
In a July 21 interview published on The Root, a website Gates founded, he said, “The police report says I was engaged in loud and tumultuous behavior. That’s a joke. Because I have a severe bronchial infection which I contracted in China and for which I was treated and have a doctor’s report from the Peninsula hotel in Beijing. So I couldn’t have yelled. I can’t yell even today, I’m not fully cured.”
In the tapes, Gates can clearly be heard shouting in the background.
He told his daughter in a July 22 interview on The Daily Beast:
If I had been white this incident never would have happened. He would have asked at the door, “Excuse me, are you okay? Because there are two black men around here try’na rob you” …. So race definitely played a role. Whether he’s an individual racist? I don’t know — I don’t know him. But I think he stereotyped me.
And that’s what racial profiling is all about. I was cast by him in a narrative and he didn’t know how to get out of it…
The tapes reveal that on the way to the house, Crowley asked what race the suspects were. Dispatch reported, “unknown on the race, one may be Hispanic, (unintelligible) I’m not sure.”
The only one cast in a pre-conceived narrative that day was Officer Crowley. Gates acknowledged in his Root interview that he saw Crowley and immediately feared for his own safety.
All of a sudden, there was a policeman on my porch. And I thought, “This is strange.” So I went over to the front porch still holding the phone, and I said “Officer, can I help you?” And he said, “Would you step outside onto the porch.” And the way he said it, I knew he wasn’t canvassing for the police benevolent association. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, “No, I will not.”
He further explained:
Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.
But the evidence strongly suggests that it was Gates who had the pre-fabricated narrative in his head. And that narrative was that a racist white cop was confronting him because he was black.
Gates began peddling that theory immediately — literally. He shouted to the bystanders who had gathered before his house upon hearing the commotion, “This is what happens to black men in America!” He threatened a lawsuit and he told anyone who would listen that he was arrested for being black.
Like Woody Allen seeing anti-Semitism everywhere in Annie Hall, Gates projected his own prejudice onto Sgt. Crowley. The moment Sgt. Crowley appeared in his sight, Gates “knew” why: racism.
Thankfully, there were witnesses. Two other police officers who were there — one Hispanic, one black — confirmed Crowley’s account and defended the arrest. The Gates neighbor who snapped the now famous photo of the professor on his porch in handcuffs said, “I know he (Gates) was tired and upset, but someone of his stature and education should be a little more understanding.”
The recordings support the accounts provided by the officers and witnesses. The tapes answer the two most important questions. No, no one reported a break-in by black men, and yes, Gates did shout at Crowley.
The evidence against Gates’ story is so compelling that on Monday the black mayor of Cambridge, Denise Simmons, said upon the release of the tapes, “I strongly support our commissioner Bob Haas.” That would be Police Commissioner Robert Haas, who fully backs Crowley. Haas said yesterday, “the tapes speak for themselves.”
In his Daily Beast interview, Gates said, “Well, the police report was an act of pure fiction. One designed to protect him, Sgt. Crowley, from unethical behavior. I was astonished at the audacity of the lies in the police report, and almost the whole thing from start to finish was just pure fabrication.”
No, it wasn’t.
This episode was indeed a teaching moment, but the lesson is not what Gates envisioned. It is the lesson taught in David Mamet’s Oleana and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. People conditioned to see others not as individuals but as representatives of a whole race or class will do exactly that. In the process, individuality is erased. There are no human-to-human encounters, but only larger clashes between races or classes. Every interaction between people of different races, even the most mundane or innocent, has a larger political meaning. All actions are seen through distorting lenses until the individuals involved disappear entirely and all that is left are blurred hues of dark and light.
That is the world Henry Louis Gates Jr. seems to have created for himself. In that world, Officer James Crowley doesn’t exist. The real James Crowley was hand-picked by a black police commissioner to teach new recruits how not to racially profile, tried to save the life of a black Boston Celtics star, and has the unqualified backing of the black officers who know and serve with him. The instant he was perceived through the eyes of Henry Louis Gates Jr., however, Officer James Crowley ceased to exist. In his place was White Officer Questioning An Innocent Black Man.
The lesson America ought to learn from this incident is that Gates’ image of the world as a place in which individuals are little more than pawns in the greater historical conflict between the races is fatally misconceived. It is a projection of a hopelessly erroneous political theory that, from time to time, reality disproves in a grand way.
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