Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Professor Gates, Obama and "Teaching Moments"


A lot of new facts are coming to light in the story of Henry Louis Gates Today's revelation was a recording and transcript of the 911 call that led to the now famous arrest of Gates, the professor at Harvard University. In the course of the phone call to 911, the now famous caller made no reference to race in describing what she saw.When pressed by the 911 operator for a description of the two men she saw, she was unsure of race, describing one man as "possibly Hispanic and not being sure of the racial description of the other man. It is with this sketchy information that Sergeant Crowley was dispatched to the scene. The 911 transcript of this part of the exchange reads as follows.

"FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Umm, well there were two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic but I'm not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all. I just saw it from a distance and this older woman was worried thinking someone's breaking in someone's house, they've been barging in. And she interrupted me and that's when I had noticed otherwise I probably wouldn't have noticed it at all, to be honest with you. So, I was just calling 'cause she was a concerned neighbor, I guess."

Sergeant Crowley arrived at the scene with sketchy information of the description of the suspects. Even if he had been satisfied that Professor Gates was the home owner, there remained the possibility that an intruder was in his house. If this had been the case, ordering Gates outside would have been a way of removing him from harm's way.

It would do Professor Gates a world of good to ride in a police car as an observer and actually do a stint as a behind the scenes observer of day to day police operations. Even though his personal experiences might have explained his hostile reaction to police, he need s to attune himself to present day realities if he is to properly educate his students.

Sergeant James Crowley has the solid support of his fellow officers, many of whom are African American. His fellow officers were quite impassioned in a CNN interview. All of Crowley's fellow officers took vehement exception to President Obama second guessing the way Gates was handled. The Cambridge Police Department seems to be one part of America in which racial divisions have melted away. In a particularly emotional part of the CNN interview, one officer who said she had voted for Obama said she would not do so again.

Obama was right about one thing. He said that the Cambridge incident was a "teaching moment". That it was, but not in the fuzzy, 50/50 feel good way Obama had imagined. Professor Gates was modeling racial prejudice, making a series of negative assumptions about Frank Crowley and the police department.

Prejudice is often based on past experience. But instead of being guided by past experience, the person who refers to their personal library of memories is sometimes blinded by them.

I met a man who was a sailor during World War Two who was transporting German prisoners of was to America. There was a horribly injured German prisoner who roared abuse at anyone who tried to come close to him. My friend knew Yiddish and high school German. He was able to understand most of what the prisoner was saying as he pushed away everyone away who wanted to help.

My friend walked over to the German and in his own language said, "You don't want a dirty American to help you? Fine! That's just fine with me.... Do me a favour. Let a dirty Jew help you."

At that point the man broke down in tears and let himself be tended to.

There is an inner growth that takes place when our professional and civic obligations take us beyond our chosen circle of friends. When we see such a challenge coming our way, we should rise to meet it.

We are not going to harmonise the various different historical narratives that are braided into America's national history. In a calm state, Professor Gates deserves respect for his personal experiences and academic knowledge. But the call for soul searching and introspection should not fall solely on America's white majority. In every moment with friends and strangers, we must ask ourselves if we are being guided by the events of our past or blinded by them.

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