What if the rush to judgement is wrong?

Last weekend’s confrontation between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge police sergeant James M. Crowley has taken the sheen off of the era of good racial feelings that accompanied President Barack Obama’s election. Wise folks knew better than to trust it, but the ugly little incident in a sylvan section of Cambridge has opened old wounds. Even President Obama jumped into the fray, saying that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates once he showed identification. The president may be right, but he too may have acted “stupidly.” Everyone following this story—including the president—needs to relax, take five, and wait for the final details to emerge.

Those who know me can attest that I’m usually among the first to mount a moral high horse. Do I believe that a lot of cops are hotheads? I sure do; even as a white man I’ve been the victim of idiots who think that a badge is a license to swagger like Dirty Harry. But I’m also a professor. Do I believe that an academic of an exalted reputation such as that of Professor Gates is capable of being belligerent, arrogant, and disrespectful of someone deemed “beneath” them? Hell, yeah! I see it all the time. And herein lays the problem. There are two stories circulating, both of which are plausible, and the only people who know what happened are Gates and Crowley and perhaps not even they recall it exactly as it went down.

One man (or both) either lied or allowed his passion to distort what occurred. This leads to still another dilemma: it would have been out of character for it to happen to either man. It would be convenient if Sgt. Crowley was a bad cop or a racist, but the record suggests he’s not. His record is exemplary, he’s popular with both white and black colleagues, and there’s not (yet) been any evidence of bias. In fact, he was the officer who frantically tried to revive black Boston Celtic star Reggie Lewis as he lay dying in a Brandeis gym sixteen years ago. As for Professor Gates, he’s simply one of the most respected names in all of academia and he has a reputation for being affable and easy-going. (My own interaction with him was far too brief for me to evaluate his character, but I deeply admire his intellect.)

When faced with two equally believable stories the prudent course is to avoid a rush to judgment. In the best possible scenario there won’t be a villain or scapegoat; both Crowley and Gates will break bread together, admit mutual misunderstanding, shake hands, and enlist as comrades in the ongoing battle to create a race-blind America. In the end, the only unassailable truth in the Crowley/Gates dispute is that the era of good racial feelings was a feel-good myth.-LV

1 comment:

susan boldman said...

As complicated as human interactions seem to be-in my experience, anyway-it is seldom Black and White.....yes, cooler heads should prevail. First instinct is to see an egregious failure on the part of the police...but...circumstances suggest other wise...
Good commentary and thank you