July 24th, 2009
10:33 PM ET

The Henry Louis Gates teaching moment

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/07/21/massachusetts.harvard.professor.arrested/art.gates.demotix.jpg caption="Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested last week on a charge of disorderly conduct."]
Boyce Watkins
Professor, Syracuse Univeristy

I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are infected with a disease. The disease that has infected you is called racism. The disease is a silent killer, not of our bodies, but of our society. It also deteriorates the brain and makes us delusional, as we sometimes see things that are not really there or refuse to see things that are actually right in front of us. What’s worse is that we know the disease is in the fabric of our institutions, but it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location. This leads to sloppy missteps, embarrassments and damaging accusations.

Henry Louis Gates, the Prominent Harvard University Professor who was arrested this week at his home by Cambridge Police Officer James Crawley, may have been a victim of the disease of racism. Even he has gotten to the point of stating that this story is no longer about race and his buddy, President Obama, has been back-peddling faster than a free safety in the NFL. In the midst of letting go of his allegations of racism against Sgt. Crawley (which I thought was a very good idea) Professor Gates has stated that we should use this situation as a “teaching moment.” It is also my hope that Dr. Gates understands that the first step toward being a good professor is to learn how to be a good student. As a professor myself, I am hopeful that he will allow me to teach the first class.

When I was first exposed to the case of Professor Henry Louis Gates vs. Sgt. James Crawley, I did not see a white officer arresting an innocent Black man. I didn’t know enough at the time to make that assertion. I also didn’t see an enraged Black man being detained by a pure and pristine police officer. Let’s be clear: police departments across America have a long way to go before they have the credibility that they would like to have and they can only blame themselves for this problem. Hundreds of years of falsely incarcerating and murdering Black men doesn’t exactly help your reputation. My father was in law enforcement for 25 years, so I had a chance to see the good, the bad and the dirty when it comes to police work. I learned that cops can be tempted to abuse their power, but that there are many good cops who are attacked by misleading and hurtful allegations.

Crawley and Gates were stuck in the middle of long standing war that was much bigger than the both of them. It is also quite plausible that the war was not bigger than their egos, which led to each side taking to the national airwaves to swear that they were right and the other party “acted stupidly.” After a great deal of back and forth that went as high as the White House, we’ve finally got what our nation needs: two men who realize that we need to resolve this situation by engaging in constructive dialog and moving our nation forward.

Let’s be honest: Professor Gates was wrong from the very beginning to claim that he could read the mind of the officer who arrested him. Rather, he would have been well-served to deal with the potential injustice itself, since most of us can understand the frustration of being arrested inside your own home. Yes, Gates was technically on the porch when the arrest took place, but it is a well-known tactic for police officers to lure the “suspect” outside before arresting them for disorderly conduct.

Secondly, Dr. Gates can learn a lesson about how to deal with the police. Even if an officer is abusing his authority, you do NOT deal with the situation at that moment. Instead, you deal with it at a later date. Sure, Professor Gates can argue that he wasn’t able to get the name and badge number of the officer in order to report him, but I imagine that the powerful professor has the contacts to get that information later.
Finally, given that Professor Gates was accused of telling the officer that he “doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” the truth is that Gates may not have known who he was “messing with” either. He was not “messing with” a rogue cop with a dirty past. He was dealing with a respected official with a stellar record who’d been chosen to teach classes on how to avoid racial profiling. I am sure he would not have been chosen for these courses had he been regularly accused of such abuses in the past.

Now that our “teaching moment” is over, Gates and Crawley can go have a beer with the president. For the rest of us, it’s time to start seriously addressing the real problem of racial profiling in America. I guarantee you this much: the problem doesn’t start at Harvard.

Filed under: 360° Radar
soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. Grammy Barb

    Professor Watkins, I have seen you commenting on TV a few times, and although I may disagree with you on occasion, I always do it with a smile on my face and great respect for your substance over hype and style way of presenting your views.

    That being said, the saddest part of this whole affair to me is that you cannot have a "teaching moment" regarding racist behavior on the back of a white cop who, up to this moment, appears to be innocent of all the racial charges being hurled at him. A sincere, honest dialogue must start with the charges of racist behavior on the part of Officer Crowley being totally and clearly wiped off the public conscience by President Obama. No "calibrating" his remarks, no innuendos and using it as a lead in to a lecture on our need to talk about racial profiling, just a plain, simple (do Harvard people know "simple'?) acknowledgement that this is a good cop, and a cop innocent of the racist behavior that he has been accused of. Then, and only then, can a true national dialogue on the racial divide in our nation begin.

    July 27, 2009 at 1:40 am |
  2. dredd724

    Tthese statements of Dr Watkins are terrible. I expected better of you. When I heard you on CNN defend the police because your father was an officer, you lost credibility with me. Yes, there are some good officers, somewhere, and there are bad ones everywhere. The fact they are given carte blanche to lie is indictment against their honesty. President Obama answered a question presented to him during a press conference on health care. What did this Gates situation have to do with it. If Obama were not Black, he never would have been asked the question in the first place. This is how race enters the picture. The policeman did act "stupidly". He was putting a Black person in their place. He showed him power. White people are incapable of being colorblind. Mr. Gates was in his home. He was understandably irate for whatever reason. The police were satisfied he was rightly in his home. Crowley left the premises. The issue, or probable cause to be there was over. Once outside he made the decision to arrest the man. What was the reason for the arrest? He probably made the decision to arrest him before he exited the home. Crowley charged him with disorderly conduct. How was he disorderly in his own home, in which there are intruders, trespassers, people meandering around his house. They may have been cops, but when they had determined he was rightly there, they should have left the premises long before. Gates was lured outside in order to be arrested. Yes the police acted stupidly, and I believe illegally. If they had cause to arrest him why didn't they marandize and arrest him inside the house. They didn't have cause to arrest him. They should be sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Given all the scenarios I've read on this subject I hope it's turned over to the US Justice Dept for investigation. Yes, race was a motive in this arrest to put a "uppity" Negro in his place.

    July 27, 2009 at 12:18 am |
  3. sharon, sydney, ns

    Lesson learned. Thank you for your fair treatment of the situation.

    July 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm |
  4. Larry

    Have you all forgotten that the call to the police was about two (2) people attempting to break into the house?

    July 24, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
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