Learning from “Teachable Moments”

Par David T. Jones le 2 septembre 2009

This summer for Americans has seen the return of the “teachable moment.”  That is, in my rough definition of such, a circumstance or development from which a lesson about life, society, politics, etc can be drawn.

Our interlock in this instance, has been the interaction between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates (an African American), Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley (a Caucasian), and U.S. President Barack Obama.  Although the outlines of this event are relatively well known, they deserve recounting.

Professor Gates had returned from a trip.  Unable to open the door to his home, he and his driver struggled to force it open.  These efforts were observed by a neighbor who, believing it to be an attempted break in (there had been incidents in the area), called 911.  Sergeant Crowley responded to the alarm and, finding Gates inside the house, attempted to determine his identity.  Gates did so and confirmed his right to be in the home—but the situation deteriorated from there with Crowley (and back up officers) requesting Gates step onto the porch for further discussion and Gates reportedly losing his composure and screaming various epithets (including reference to Crowley’s “mama”).  The consequence was Gates being arrested for disorderly conduct, handcuffed, and taken to jail.  He was quickly released and the charges dropped.

Problem over.  Well, no; indeed, it had just begun.

In an ensuing press conference, President Obama, who knew Gates personally, declared that the police “acted stupidly” (i.e., that Crowley was stupid) and that racial profiling was a historical problem for African Americans.   The president, a Harvard law school graduate, had made a classic mistake:  speaking on a legal issue without significant background.

And, unfortunately, he also revealed a level of racial profiling apparently inherent in his own character.  For the president demonstrated that he racially profiled “blue” people, that is, those wearing police uniforms.  And that instinctively he believed an African American was unlikely to be treated fairly by a policeman.   

Moreover, Professor Gates, despite his iconic status in academia, clearly demonstrated his prejudices—against white policemen.  He was a Harvard professor demanding that he be treated as a very important person, e.g., akin to a diplomat professing his immunity to arrest.  But tenure is not beatification regardless of the desires of Harvard professors for the status of sainthood before death.  Moreover, his reported reference to Crowley’s “mama” is one of those ultimate insults between males.  It implies that the individual engages in incestuous carnal activity with his mother, a comment not usually amusing to any son.  

But, as was quickly revealed, Sergeant Crowley was as far from being the bigoted race- profiling Irish cop of the president’s imagination as Mother Theresa is from a streetwalker.  Indeed, Crowley is the epitome of the post-racial policeman vintage 2009.  With a flawless record—and the instructor in a racial sensitivity class for police over the past five years (a position to which he was appointed by an African American police commissioner), Crowley was no storm trooper.  Indeed, his personal probity was so unquestioned, that his colleagues leaped to his defense.  No “blue wall” exercise this, but rather a visceral reaction that Crowley was being unjustly criticized by the liberal media in general and the president in particular.  Most dramatic was a televised statement by a female African American officer who defended Crowley, stated that she had supported/voted for Obama—but would no longer do so.

 No fool he, the president, having found himself on the politically unpopular side of the issue, spun like a whirling dervish.  Rather than an immensely embarrassing faux pas, the president declared it to be a “teachable moment” and invited Gates and Crowley to have a beer with him at the White House.  This “suds summit” took place on July 30; any teaching points developed remain unknown.  However, there were no apologies by either Sergeant Crowley or Professor Gates.

But what Americans can take away from the incident is instructive.  We are not in a post-racial society.  African Americans at every level believe themselves subject to police suspicion at best; brutality at worst.  Caucasians outside the precincts of Harvard Yard are both cynical and skeptical about African American charges of racial profiling and the “reverse discrimination” of compensatory hiring (notably within police and fire departments) and university admissions.  

Nevertheless, times have changed.  A generation ago an exchange between a lippy, confrontational citizen of any racial/ethnic group and a police officer would likely have ended with violence.  Perhaps both Professor Gates and President Obama could spend a moment appreciating that 2009 Cambridge is not 1968 Democratic Convention Chicago.

Presumably, Sergeant Crowley just hopes that his career and life will not forever be a footnote connected to an evening in July2009.    

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