Years ago, when I was in my early 20s and working as a clerk at the original Borders Book Shop in Ann Arbor, I came home after work one hot summer evening with a bag full of groceries and discovered that the lock to my apartment was broken. I left the groceries (including some melting ice cream) outside my door and went door to door in my building, looking for a phone I could use (this was in the Jurassic Era, aka the 1970s, before cellphones) so I could call my landlord. I finally found a neighbor at home (it was a Sunday evening), called my landlord, and got his machine. Not knowing what else to do (like I say, my ice cream was melting), I borrowed a crowbar from my neighbor, went down to the front porch of the building, and broke in my own bedroom window. Then I crawled through—very carefully—opened my door, put my groceries away, and went back into the bedroom with the empty grocery bag to pick up the pieces of broken glass. As soon as I bent over, I saw an Ann Arbor cop on the lawn, just beyond the porch railing, leveling his pistol at me. "Come out of the house slowly," he said, "with your hands in the air."
Well, folks, that got my attention. I came out onto the porch with my hands in the air, trembling like leaves. "I don't know if this makes any difference," I said, "but this is my apartment." The cop, it turns out, was one of four officers who showed up, including, my neighbor told me later, an officer with a shotgun at the rear entrance of the building. He walked me back inside; I showed him my driver's license and a utility bill, and he tried my key in the lock to make sure I was telling the truth about that, too. Then all the cops went away.
During that same period in my life, I spent a lot of time behind a cash register at Borders, dealing with professors from the University of Michigan, which was a block away. Most of them were perfectly pleasant, but there were always a few arrogant ones, who seemed to think they were entitled to special treatment or discounts, and more than once during my five years as a bookstore clerk, I heard some jackass with an overdeveloped sense of his or her own importance say, "Don't you know who I am?"
Which brings me, of course, to Henry Louis Gates, but if you think you know where I'm going with this, don't be so sure, because I'm not so sure myself what I think of this whole situation. This blog post is me thinking out loud. I've been following it with considerable interest, not the least because how it all played out—on the day of his arrest, and ever since—provides a perfect opportunity to apply the lens of gender, race, and class, that trifecta of modern academia. You might even call it a perfect storm. I think race certainly played a factor, perhaps even the determining one, but (as academics like to say), it's complicated, and I also think without factoring gender and class into the situation, you can't really understand it. I enter into this with the obvious caveat that no one, not even Professor Gates or Sergeant Crowley, will ever know what really happened (I'm just enough of a postmodernist for that), and that the ordinary epistemological fuzziness of an incident like this—he said vs. he said— thickened within hours into an impenetrable fog of public claims and cross-claims. Just today, in the Boston Globe, there are two matching and mutually contradictory articles, one featuring the famous friends of Skip Gates saying that he's not an arrogant jerk, and the other featuring the not-so-famous family and fellow officers of Sergeant Crowley saying that he's not a racist.
All that said, here's what I'm thinking played into the incident, in ascending level of importance:
CLASS: If you read Crowley's police report, and you assume, as I do (because of my experience with professors over the years), that he's not lying through his teeth, Professor Gates went ballistic and immediately played the "Don't you know who I am?" card. I completely believe this, despite what Gates himself or his supporters might say, on the principle that your friends don't necessarily see every side of your personality, especially how you treat people you consider subordinate to you. (The more relevant testimony, it seems to me, would come from secretaries, janitors, and waitresses who have dealt with Gates over the years.) The fact is, Professor Gates is not just a Harvard professor, he's a really famous one. Arrogance, or at least a sense of entitlement, in a man like that isn't a surprise, or even a character flaw: it's just part of the job description. Put it another way: sweet, self-effacing people don't become Harvard professors. It doesn't mean that Professor Gates is not a good or honorable man (and I believe that he is, not to mention a truly brilliant observer of race in America), it's just that you need a pretty high level of self-regard to succeed at that level, and when you do, you come to expect that people lower down the food chain will defer to you as a matter of course.
Put against that the life and professional experience of James Crowley, who (I'm guessing) is solidly middle class, perhaps even working class in background. He works for the Cambridge Police Department, so no doubt he's dealt with a Harvard professor or two in his time. Is it reasonable to suppose that the average middle-class townie in Cambridge doesn't harbor any resentment, no matter how subconscious, against the mandarins at Harvard? I don't think so. Add in the fact that he's a cop, who is used to telling people what to do, and having them do it or face the consequences, and you've got one of those immovable-object-meets-irresistible-force situations. I don't know any cops personally (though one of my best friends is a civilian employee of a large police department), but in my very rare dealings with them, I get the distinct impression that, as a class, a) they don't like being contradicted, and b) they don't like people who put on airs.
What further complicates this, of course, is the two gentlemen's shared
GENDER: Which is not to say that the same thing wouldn't have happened if one or both of them had been a woman. But let's just say that when you get two guys facing off, especially two guys of different social class, it's going to go from zero to intransigence a lot faster. Some commentators have questioned the police report's claim that Professor Gates said, "Yeah, I'll talk to your mama outside," on the principle that a Harvard professor wouldn't talk that way. Having seen professors get mad upon occasion, I'm here to say that being a guy trumps your profession in a situation like this. I don't have any problem believing that a Harvard professor, if he was feeling angry, wouldn't start talking like any other guy on the street. Given the (extremely) mitigating factors that Professor Gates had just come back from a long plane trip, that he was tired, frustrated at not being able to get into his own house, and then confronted by a stony-faced white cop in his own hallway, I think the testosterone would flow pretty freely.
It was probably flowing pretty freely in Sergeant Crowley, too. The key moment in the police report, it seems to me, is when Crowley writes, "While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me." In other words, this prick is fucking with the wrong guy. This is the point where the situation went irrevocably downhill, where I think the flood of testosterone got the better of both men: Professor Gates is on the phone, demanding that someone "Get the chief," while Sergeant Crowley is radioing in that he's with "someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative." My point being, I guess, that Gates should have calmed down and stopped shouting and pulling rank, but that Crowley, having established that Gates actually was in his own home, should have shrugged off the abuse and walked away. I came to this conclusion on my own, reading the report, but I was also enlightened by this comment on the Double X blog, from a woman who has been a police officer, making the same case: that police officers deal with loudmouthed jerks all the time, but they don't usually arrest them for it, especially if they haven't done anything else wrong.
Which then brings us down to the nub of it, the fact that Sergeant Crowley did arrest Professor Gates, when he didn't really need to. I think all the elements I've outlined above played into it—professorial entitlement, Gates's fatigue and frustration, the cop's expectation of being instantly obeyed, the two men's respective social classes, their abundant testosterone—but it really feels as if the one thing that pushed it past the tipping point was
RACE: I realize that, in my earnest, white liberal fashion, I have finally worked my way back to where a lot of other commentators (especially black male commentators, including the president of the United States) started in the first place: that if Henry Louis Gates had been white, and had behaved exactly the same way, he wouldn't have been arrested. Some commentators (mostly white) have given their own anecdotal evidence of being bossed around by cops and threatened with arrest, or even arrested, for mouthing off, but on the whole, I have to agree that it looks like the one remaining element, the one thing that may have rubbed Sergeant Crowley the wrong way, was that Gates was a black man. I say this with some trepidation, because the accusation of racism, especially in a high-profile situation like this, paints with a very broad brush, with the result that a decision by an ordinarily decent cop in a moment of stress, when his buttons are being pushed by an angry man and when deep-seated attitudes that probably most white people still have might come to the surface (perhaps even unwillingly), is judged to be on a par with burning crosses or turning fire hoses on civil rights marchers. It's even more difficult to make a distinction when each side is demonizing the other—Crowley's a racist vs. Gates is an elitist asshole—and it also raises the question of whether the fact that there are degrees of racism is any excuse. It isn't, I suppose, but any discussion of race that doesn't take into account how complicated and contradictory people are isn't going to get us very far. So, I guess my bottom line is this: Professor Gates probably shouldn't have lost his temper, but Sergeant Crowley definitely shouldn't have arrested him.
Professor Gates is already talking about making a documentary about this, and I really hope he does. If this isn't a teaching moment, I don't know what is. I've always relied on him to say something shrewd and thoughtful at moments like this—I still remember his brilliant and illuminating analysis of the aftermath of the O. J. verdict—and what I'd really like to see, if it's at all possible, is the two men together on camera, once the passions have cooled and the lawsuits are dismissed, talking about this honestly with each other, across the lines of race and class. In the Age of Obama, this whole thing really shouldn't have happened, but in the spirit of Obama, it's a fantastic opportunity to say a lot of things that need to be said.
In which I mostly write about books, movies, and TV. An all-purpose spoiler alert: Sometimes I will talk about these works on the assumption that the reader's already read or seen them, so if you haven't, be forewarned.
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