By now the basic facts are familiar: Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., 58, returned midday last week from China to his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, and found his front door jammed. With the help of his cabbie, Gates shouldered the door. A passerby noticed, thought she was witnessing a break-in, and called the cops. Police Sgt. James Crowley, 42, arrived to find Gates inside and asked him to step out, which Gates initially refused to do.
What happened next is murky, depending on whose side you follow. In the end Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, though the charge was later dropped.
What is clear is that Gates was angered by the policeman’s unwelcome intervention, and the policeman, if not at first, was eventually angered by Gates’ lack of cooperation.
The case demonstrates that the problem of the 20th century remains the problem of the 21st. It also illustrates just how much race is caught up in matters of place. A man’s home, it seems, is not always his castle. Especially if he happens to be black.
Think about it: Gates had just returned from China, he was frustrated by his swollen-tight door, he was apparently suffering from a lung infection, and he had not yet unpacked. Then a cop showed up at the door, and without even a welcome home, asked Gates to step outside and show ID.
Crowley, on the other hand, was responding to a report of a possible break-in. He was following the book. Given the circumstances, he assumed that Gates might have been a dangerous intruder. He did exactly what his superiors say he should have done: he asked Gates to step outside and show ID.
Thus, both men were acting understandably, if not always reasonably.
Now, you have to wonder, as I did, whether the woman on the street would have called the police had the two men on the porch been white. Remember it was broad daylight, not a peak hour for B&Es. People bang around their houses all the time. I’ve forgotten my keys and had to crawl through a window to my own house. Nobody called the cops. I look like I belong in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t shouldering the door alone that prompted the woman to call the police. Rather, it was her sense that the two men didn’t belong on the porch that prompted her to call. And my guess is she thought they didn’t belong on that porch, blocks from Harvard Square, because they were black.
But let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the two men on the porch were white, and that the woman still called the cops. Good for her. No harm done. She might have prevented a theft. The police come, the white guy, now inside, steps out, explains the misunderstanding, thanks the officer, and everyone goes on their merry way.
Why couldn’t Gates have done what I’d like to think I would do, even if I was irritated by the interruption of my unpacking after a long trip?
Gates, of course, knew immediately what race dynamics were in play. He is after all the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of African American Studies at Harvard. He knew full well that chances were the call was motivated, at least in part, by an assumption on the caller’s part that, being black, he didn’t belong in that neighborhood on the front porch of his own house. Consider what that knowledge would do to your soul.
Add to this the officer’s apparent disbelief that Gates was who he said he was, and his not being satisfied by the Harvard ID, with picture, that Gates initially offered (but which did not include an address, adding, according to Crowley, to the confusion).
We cannot grasp what happened in this exchange without taking into account the burden law-abiding people of color carry daily as they are targeted, profiled, and assumed to be criminals. I’m white. I don’t carry that burden. It never would occur to me that a police officer on my doorstep was there because of my race.
But that’s exactly what Gates believed – and with good reason.
When Crowley asked him to step outside, Gates answered angrily and loudly: “Why, because I’m a black man in America?”
In his report, Crowley described Gates’ behavior as “loud and tumultuous,” that it “seemed very peculiar.” Well, perhaps. But how well was Crowley, who trains fellow officers how to avoid racial profiling, listening? And anyway, what’s illegal about being loud and tumultuous in your own home in the middle of the day? Everybody’s got neighbors who are loud and tumultuous on occasion.
The details may be uncertain, but what happened next is certainly a version of classic male-typical aggressive behavior: both men raised voices, locked horns, and dug in heels. Men in societies all over the world have a way of doing this when they feel disrespected. Interestingly enough, both men were probably also looking for a sign of conciliation from the other. Any sign.
Few men actually want to fight. They want to appear ready, willing, and able to fight. But they’d really rather not. Had either Crowley or Gates offered peace, the other likely would have accepted it, and the episode would have turned out differently.
Indeed, Crowley has said he just wanted Gates to quiet down. Gates made it equally clear that had the officer acknowledged his right to be in his own home – and believed that an African American could occupy such a home – he would have quieted down.
“I do not believe,” Gates said afterward, “that standing up for my rights as a citizen should be against the law.”
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson described the ritual behaviors that stimulate social division as “schizmogenesis.” Schizmogenesis is what generates arms races and civil wars. Both sides think they’re right, their belligerent behavior excites the same from their opponents, and so on.
Schizmogenesis is a social system, and the only way to stop it is for one or the other party to step outside the system and refuse its terms, which is to say, refuse to respond in kind. Ending this kind of conflict requires that one of the parties offers a hand rather than, as in this case, a pair of handcuffs.
I believe the responsibility for such a gesture lay with the police officer. Why? Because the cop wasn’t acting as an individual but as a representative of society. He was in the stronger position, and the position of strength comes with a responsibility to transcend the personal. Once Crowley knew that Gates was in his own house, he should have swallowed his ego, backed off, said he was sorry for the misunderstanding, and left.
Though Gates, too, is a public figure, he was, in this case, standing in the privacy of his house. He had no pressing public responsibilities. He was an individual – a tired and exasperated individual. Instead of doing what African Americans have always had to do with whites in public places, he chose to stand his ground, stick up for himself.
In the privacy of his own home.