A psychologist’s take: Gates case is all too typical

As we all know by now, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard’s prominent scholar of African American History, was arrested for disorderly conduct at his home in Cambridge Massachusetts on July 16, 2009, after a report of a possible break in. 

It turns out that Dr. Gates and his driver were simply trying to open a jammed door to his home. After he had gained entry and was in his home, Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley showed up at his doorstep to investigate, and that was when everything, well, went to hell.

According to today’s New York Times:

Professor Gates said he saw Sergeant Crowley on his porch. The sergeant was disrespectful from the beginning, the professor said, asking him to step outside without explanation and demanding identification while refusing to provide his own.

Professor Gates, 58, says the sergeant repeatedly refused to reveal his name or badge number; Sergeant Crowley, 42, says the professor initially refused to provide identification, then produced only his Harvard ID card, which included no address, to prove he lived in the house.

“From the time he opened the door it seemed that he was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place,” Sergeant Crowley told the station, WEEI.

Sergeant Crowley said that while the professor did not “look like somebody who would break into a house,” his tone was troubling.

In the police report he filed, Sergeant Crowley said Professor Gates had refused to step outside and, when told the sergeant was investigating a possible break-in, said, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” According to the report, Professor Gates also accused the sergeant of being racist and yelled that he “wasn’t someone to mess with.”

Though there are many more statements that were made by both men in this case, the above information makes it crystal clear in my mind what may have happened here. Still the facts are in dispute. That is why as part of my thesis I am giving both men the benefit of the doubt, that their behavior was emotionally complicated, but not illegal. 

I can tell you as a psychologist who has worked on many police brutality cases, this one is a typical no-brainer. Professor Gates conducted himself as an equal and full citizen who was appropriately outraged that he was being confronted and investigated for breaking into his own home. Sgt. Crowley was taken aback at the moxie of this black citizen in challenging his authority. To add insult to injury, Professor Gates is universally known and should have been recognized immediately as soon as Sgt. Crowley was able to have made a visual. That being said, I believe the problem for Professor Gates really began with his thinking pattern.

By law, Gates is an equal and full citizen, but the reality is that like every other person of color, he is not treated or perceived that way. I have ridden in cars with my white friends who have been stopped by the police and have been amazed as to how they have been able to challenge them verbally and get away with it. I know if I, as a black man, were to say some of those same things, I would be tasered and arrested immediately. 

I often teach black youth, when stopped by the police, not to behave in a way that an officer can misinterpret as being belligerent or challenging to their authority. That means addressing the officer as “Sir”, or “Officer”, not asking for badge numbers, but instead memorizing them and being polite and saying as little as possible, even if the police officer is being rude and belligerent. Some have criticized my strategy as kowtowing to the police, I call it “flipping the script and tricking the devil,” in other words, being smart and keeping a situation in check around someone who may not have the maturity (or worse – may be racist) to wear the esteemed uniform and carry the gun. Thus, I am not at all surprised that Sgt. Crowley would interpret or misinterpret Professor Gates’ outrage and demand of accountability as a “peculiar” and “troubling” tone.

Could both Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley have been smarter and more professional in handling this situation? Most probably. Does Sgt. Crowley, who is well regarded by the police force, and is an instructor in diversity training himself, still carry the emotional baggage of unconscious or institutional racism? It’s possible. 

One thing I do know is that just because we have a black president, it does not mean we have a post-racial society. Racism and prejudice remain a major challenge for our great nation. My fantasy is that Sgt. Crowley provides Professor Gates the apology he has requested, they kiss and make up and then they use this regrettable situation to further the dialogue of race in America and what we can all do to eliminate it once and for all. As a famous American once said “Can’t we all just get along?”